Friday, April 03, 2009

UPDATE: Vermont House Vote Sets Up Showdown With Governor Over Same-Gender Marriage


Vermont House, By 95-52 Vote, Passes Bill to Accord Full Marriage Rights to Gay and Lesbian Couples, but Falls Short of Two-Thirds Majority; Supporters Vow All-Out Push to Get 100 Votes Needed to Override Expected Veto By Governor; Poll Finds 55 Percent of Vermonters Support Same-Gender Marriage While 38 Percent Oppose It


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Vermont State Representative Peg Flory (right), a Republican from the town of Pittsford, asks a question to Dr. Louis DiNicola of the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (not pictured), who testified in favor of a bill to legalize same-gender marriage during a hearing by the House Judiciary Committee at the Statehouse in Montpelier on March 26, while Representative Bill Lippert, the committee's chairman, listens. Lippert, a Democrat from the town of Hinesburg, is gay and would benefit from the measure if it becomes law. Flory, who opposed the state's existing civil union law in 2000, was one of only two members the 11-member panel to vote against the marriage bill. (Photo courtesy The Burlington Free Press)


(Posted 5:00 a.m. EDT Thursday, April 2, 2009)
(Updated 7:00 a.m EDT Friday, April 3, 2009)

By SKEETER SANDERS


MONTPELIER, Vermont – It's showdown time over same-gender marriage in the Green Mountain State. The Democratic-controlled Vermont House of Representatives voted 95-52 Thursday night to allow same-sex couples to marry, but the tally fell five votes short of a two-thirds majority needed to override an expected veto by Governor Jim Douglas.

The measure's supporters, however, vowed to make an all-out push for an override. Several House members who voted against the bill said they would vote in favor of the override to voice their displeasure with the governor.

The decisive vote came after five hours of impassioned debate in the House chamber packed to the rafters. The most emotional speeches were made by members of the House who were either themselves gay or who had gay family members who would directly benefit from the bill if it becomes law.

The measure would make Vermont the third state, after Massachusetts and Connecticut, to legalize marriage for same-gender couples -- but the first state to do so voluntarily, without pressure from a court ruling that declared gay and lesbian couples have a constitutional right to marry.

Douglas, a Republican, has publicly vowed to veto the measure -- breaking a longstanding practice of not announcing his intentions on pending legislation before it reaches his desk. But Douglas had previously voiced strong opposition to the bill, arguing that the Legislature needed to pay greater attention to the budget and the ongoing economic crisis first.

In announcing his intention to veto the bill, Douglas made it clear that he believed that marriage should be reserved exclusively for opposite-gender couples and that the existing civil union law -- passed by the lawmakers in 2000 after the Vermont Supreme Court declared that gay and lesbian couples had a constitutional right to the same benefits that married opposite-gender couples enjoy -- is sufficient.

SUPPORTERS SCRAMBLE TO WIN OVERRIDE; SENATE MUST OK AMENDMENT

A final vote by the full 150-member House on the measure is expected later today (Friday) -- but not before Republicans offer more amendments in a last-ditch effort to defeat it. Under legislative rules, each chamber must conduct two votes on pending legislation -- with the second vote taking place after amendments.

Douglas' vow to veto the marriage bill sets up a high-stakes drama on the House floor. While the measure's passage was never in doubt, the chances of garnering a two-thirds majority to override the governor's expected veto remains uncertain.

Even before the bill reaches Douglas' desk, the Senate must approve an amendment tacked on to the measure by state Representative Anne Donahue, a Republican from the town of Northfield, that is aimed at clarifying the distinction between civil marriage awarded by the state and the sacrament of matrimony awarded by religious institutions.

The clarification was added to a provision in the bill that exempts religious institutions from being forced to perform same-gender wedding ceremonies that are contrary to their religious principles and shields them from discrimination lawsuits against them by gay and lesbian couples.

Donahue ultimately voted yes -- one of only five House Republicans who supported the bill; eleven of the chamber's 96 Democrats voted no -- but several said they would nonetheless vote to override Douglas' veto.

All six House members from the more liberal-leaning Progressive Party voted yes.

CONSTITUTIONALITY OF EXISTING CIVIL UNION LAW IS QUESTIONED

Supporters of the marriage bill argue that civil unions constitute "separate but equal," setting up separate types of state recognition of couples' relationships -- marriage for opposite-gender couples and civil unions for same-gender couples -- constituting a latter-day form of de jure segregation that is banned under the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The preamble of the existing civil union law, in fact, defines marriage as exclusively between opposite-gender couples, explicity barring gay and lesbian couples from marrying outright. Conversely, it also bars opposite-gender couples from obtaining a civil union.

The Vermont Supreme Court's 1999 ruling in Baker v. State of Vermont that led to the civil union law stopped short of declaring flatly that gay and lesbian couples had a right to marry under the Vermont Constitution; only that they were entitled to the same spousal benefits covered by state law that married opposite-gender couples enjoy. The justices left it up to the Legislature to decide in what form Vermont's recognition of same-gender couples' relationships would take.

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled last October that the Nutmeg State's civil union law, passed just three years ago, violated the equal-treatment clause of the Connecticut Constitution. Its counterpart in Massachusetts -- which declared that state's ban on same-gender marriage unconstitutional in 2003 -- declared in a subsequent ruling that civil unions would not pass muster under the Bay Sate constitution's equal-rights amendment, which bans gender-based discrimination.

The Connecticut Constitution's equal-treatment clause is patterned after the federal Constitution's equal-protection clause -- prompting concerns by gay rights advocates that Vermont's own civil union law is vulnerable and would not likely survive a legal challenge in federal court.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit has been filed in U.S. District Court in Boston by six married same-gender couples and the widower of the late former U.S. Representative Gerry Studds challenging the constitutionality of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-gender marriages and allows states to refuse to recognize such unions allowed in other states.

The plaintiffs argue that the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutionally deprives them of federal spousal benefits that married opposite-gender couples enjoy, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment -- and of the Constitution's Entitlement Clause (Article IV, Section 2), which says: "The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to the all Privileges and Immunities of the Citizens in the several States."

MEASURE HAD EASY TIME IN JUDICIARY COMMITTEE

The measure sailed through the 11-member House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday by a 8-2 vote. The committee's seven Democrats were joined by a lone Republican in voting in favor of the bill, which came after more than a week of testimony before the panel. Two Republicans voted against it -- one of whom, Peg Flory of the town Pittsford, unsuccessfully led the opposition to the original civil union law in 2000.

The 11th member of the committee, House Republican Leader Patti Komline of the town of Dorset, recused herself because she was absent from the committee hearings that took testimony on the measure, but has said she will vote for it on the House floor.

One hundred votes would be required for the bill to win a veto-proof two-thirds majority. The measure passed the 30-member Senate last week by a vote of 26-4 -- five votes more than the two-thirds majority needed for a veto override.

“It’s no secret where I stand on this issue,” said state Representative William Lippert, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, shortly before he voted yes. “I believe this is the right thing to do. I believe this is the right time to do it.”

Lippert, a Democrat from the town of Hinesburg, is gay and would directly benefit from the measure if it becomes law. Lippert and his partner, Enrique Peredo, were among the first same-gender couples to obtain their civil union when the existing law took effect on July 1, 2000.

DOUGLAS' VETO THREAT SPARKS OUTPOURING OF LETTERS, E-MAILS

Governor Douglas' vow to veto the bill has sparked an outpouring of letters and e-mails to him, both in support and in opposition to his decision. Since announcing his intentions last Wednesday, Douglas' office has been flooded with more than 1,500 letters and e-mails, according to The Associated Press.

Many of the letter-writers were highly critical of Douglas' decision -- with some of the governor's critics vowing to retaliate by voting against him if he runs for re-election to a fifth two-year term next year (Vermont and New Hampshire are the only states whose governors serve two-year, rather than four-year terms).

A sample of the letters critical of Douglas quoted by the AP:

• “[Vetoing the bill] would clearly show the deep feelings of discrimination, bigotry and hate you feel for a group of Vermont people who have already had to wait for equal marriage rights in our state too long,” wrote a man from the town of Newport, located in the state's conservative Northeast Kingdom near the Canadian border.

• “Being ahead of one’s time is what brought slavery and racial discrimination to an end ... please support the Freedom to Marry bill,” wrote a man from Putney, a town in the southeastern corner of the state.

• “ ... your choice to veto is a slap in the face and a firm reminder that in your opinion, my partner and I are worth less than others simply because we are of the same gender,” wrote a gay man from South Burlington in a civil union with his partner, who wrote that he refuses to be “a second class citizen in this state.”

Other letter-writers strongly supported the governor -- but many of the pro-Douglas missives came from outside Vermont, prompting suspicions of an orchestrated campaign by national conservative groups opposed to same-gender marriage. Vermonters are well known for jealously guarding their political independence and for resenting being told what to do by outsiders.

Three of the anti-same-gender marriage letters received by Douglas and quoted by the AP included the following:

• “It takes courage,” wrote a woman from Ovando, Montana. “Keep up the fight. Our prayers are with you. You are setting an example for other states.”

• “Our children, grand children will be harmed by this bill,” wrote a woman from Milton, Vermont. “I’ve seen what their teaching can do to a impressionistic teenage (sic) like my nephew, who is very confused. Please, please, please veto this bill.”

• “Your stance is reasonable and not unkind,” wrote a woman from Vermont's largest city, Burlington -- a staunchly liberal bastion. “It must have been a difficult political decision, but right nonetheless. There are many Vermonters who are with you, but simply don’t know how to articulate it. Hold firm!”

SENATE LEADER: GOVERNOR 'ON WRONG SIDE OF HISTORY'

A day efore Thursday night's House vote, Vermont Public Radio reported that House Democratic leaders were already working on assembling a veto-proof two-thirds majority in the lower chamber.

In an interview with the public broadcaster, state Senate President pro-tempore Peter Shumlin said backers of the bill must continue to put pressure on the governor and undecided lawmakers. "[House] Speaker [Shap Smith] and I are going to work very hard to ensure that we have veto-proof majorities," he said.

"We need Vermonters of all persuasions to call up the governor and tell him he's on the wrong side of history that he should change his mind and sign this bill," said Shumlin, a Windham County Democrat. "And he needs to hear that message loud and clear over the next several weeks as we push this bill through the House."

Douglas' promise to veto the measure may also run counter to public opinion. On Monday, state Senate Republican Leader William Doyle of Washington County, who is one of the longest-serving members of the Legislature, released the results of his annual Town Meeting Day Survey, a questionnaire that seeks Vermonters' views on the issues of greatest concern to them.

Although the Doyle survey -- which is distributed each year in March to every town, village and city across the state as an informal companion to the official ballot cards used in local elections -- is not scientific, it's been an accurate barometer of Vermonters' mood since 1968.

For 2009, the survey asked Vermonters if they supported or opposed same-gender marriage. of the more than 12,000 people who responded, a solid 55 percent majority answered "yes," while a 38 percent minority answered "no." Seven percent of respondents said they were undecided.

(Doyle voted in favor of the same-gender marriage bill.)

The results are a dramatic turnaround from 2000, when debate over the civil union law was bitter and divisive. When the Doyle survey asked the same question in 2000, 58 percent of respondents opposed same-gender marriage and only 38 percent supported it, with the remaining four percent undecided. Vermonters that year were almost evenly split on civil unions, with 49 percent in favor, 46 percent opposed and four percent undecided.

# # #

Volume IV, Number 26
Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.







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