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Civil Unions & same-sex marriage in Vermont

News: 2000-JUL to 2006

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Year 2000 activity:

bullet2000-JUL-1: Civil Unions become available: According to DayWatch for JUL-3, "An estimated two dozen same-sex couples obtained civil union licenses" in Vermont -- some only a few minutes after the law took effect at midnight. Clerks in seven of the state's 260 communities kindly kept their offices open late specifically to serve gay/lesbian couples. However, clerks in five communities have resigned, threatened to resigned, or indicated that they would not issue licenses. "The first license was issued in Montpelier, to Carolyn Conrad and Kathleen Peterson. After receiving the document, the women left town hall and exchanged vows before a justice of the peace." The status of these civil unions in other states is undetermined at this time. State Representative William Lippert (D), who is the only openly gay member of the legislature, said, "For the vast majority of Vermonters, Saturday will be just another day and that is probably as it should be. But it also marks a turning point...it could be the beginning of a new era of justice for gay and lesbian people." At a "Take Back Vermont" rally, a participant called the law  "state-sanctioned sodomy." State representative Oreste Valsangiacoma (R) said that most Vermonters were "shocked" that the enabling legislation became law. "If this kind of behavior ever becomes the norm, than the human race is going to disappear from the face of the earth." Opponents paid for a black-bordered full page ad Burlington Free Press for JUN-18. It criticized supporters as an "insufferable hubris of the narcissistic gay lobby, that would place personal pleasures before public order."

[Author's note: The rally participant was wrong. The civil union law does not sanction anal sex. It was already legal when the union bill was passed. A small percentage of Vermonters, mostly heterosexual, have always engaged in that activity. Also, the human race is in no danger of disappearing. Over 90% of humanity is currently heterosexual, and there is no indication that this will change in the future. On the other hand, if more people somehow became homosexual, some of the world's overpopulation problem might be alleviated. As it happens, nobody knows how to change the ratio of homosexuals to heterosexuals. We agree that gays and lesbians are motivated by personal pleasure to join in civil unions; they are committed to their permanent same-sex relationship, and probably feel happier now that it is now recognized by the state. We are uncertain what the ad's reference to "public order" is. We have not been able to find any references to public disorder related to civil unions.]
 
bullet2000-SEP-8: Opinion poll: ReligionToday reported the results of a recent poll of Vermont voters. 54% of voters said that they opposed the law which permits same-sex civil unions. 49% said that it will have a major effect on how they vote. The approval rating of Governor Howard Dean, a Democrat, who signed the bill into law has dropped over 20 points since the bill was passed. The legislators knew that they were in a difficult situation. The oaths of office requires them to follow the state constitution, and the Vermont Supreme Court required the legislators to change the law to allow gay marriages or civil unions. If they voted  against the bill, they would have violated their oaths of office; if they voted for the bill, they were aware that they would lose votes in any re-election bid.
 
bullet2000-AUG-17: Assessment: According to Southern Voice, Chris Tebbetts, spokesperson for the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force stated: "I think things have gone extremely smoothly so far. We told everyone the sky would not fall, and indeed it hasn't...People are getting their civil unions and moving on, and other people are seeing that their lives haven't changed." 1
 
bullet2000-SEP-13: Political costs and public agitation: Five Republican legislators who supported the civil union bill and one Democratic legislator who opposed the bill were ousted in their bid to be their party's candidates for the November election. Their votes on the civil rights bill were generally believed to be the reason for their loss. Ruth Dwyer has been selected to be the Republican candidate for governor. She is opposed by the incumbent Governor Howard Dean. She predicts that the general election on NOV-7 will be a "knock down, drag out campaign.

"Take Back Vermont" slogans have appeared throughout the state. They are led by groups such as Who Would Have Thought? and Take It to the People. Local newsrooms have been flooded with letters. The New York Times noted that the tone of the debate has gotten progressively more hostile and threatening. But a recent letter sent to a newspaper and signed by more than 150 local residents condemned "the divisiveness, hostility and mistrust we see overtaking our towns since the passage of the civil unions law." They condemned "a climate of fear being created by people whose alarmist tactics discourage rational debate." The letter called for a return to "a spirit of community." In a recent press conference, Gov. Howard Dean, (D) asked if residents wanted to "take Vermont back" to the days of lax environmental rules, unfair tax policies [and to] a time when it was O.K. to discriminate against people for a variety of reasons. I personally don't think we do want to take back Vermont to those days."

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Year 2001 activity:

bullet2001-JAN-4: Details on "Take Back Vermont" program: Focus on the Family, a Fundamentalist Christian group, opposes equal rights for gays and lesbians. They posted an essay on their web site under the category of "Hometown Heroes." It had been previously published in their Citizen magazine. 2 The essay was headed by a biblical quotation from Proverbs 28:12: "When the righteous triumph, there is great elation; but when the wicked rise to power, men go into hiding." The "wicked" term appears to be refer to those Vermont legislators who obeyed their oaths of office. They complied with the Vermont Supreme Court ruling instructing them to pass a law allowing gays and lesbians to enjoy the same state rights and privileges as married heterosexual couples. The essay describes "a movement that on [2000-]Nov. 7 unseated 17 legislators who imposed same-sex 'civil unions' on a public that didn't want them." Craig Bensen, a volunteer head of Take It to the People. Motivated by disgust at civil unions, he lead a program to unseat Governor Howard Dean and key state legislators who voted in favor of the civil union bill. "Democrats held a 75-67 lead over Republicans in the 150-member state House of Representatives before the elections. Afterward, the GOP led 83-63." The movement continues with the aim of placing conservative Christians on school boards in 2001-MAR. They hope to remove any teaching which states that homosexuality is a normal, natural sexual orientation for a minority of people.
 
bullet2001-SEP-3: Recent developments in Vermont and elsewhere: More than 2,100 same-sex couples have come to Vermont to celebrate their civil unions. Added to this are about 600 couples from Vermont. Many of the out-of-staters come from Massachusetts, New York and California. Civil unions have become routine in the state. Many wedding photographers, inns, florists and caterers are now advertising themselves as gay-friendly. The first same-sex wedding expo will be held in Centerport, NY in October. The legislatures in at least five other states, (RI, CT, WA, HI, CA) have considered a gay marriage or civil union bill. Seven gay couples are suing the state of Massachusetts for the right to marry; one couple engaged in a civil union ceremony in Vermont. In Georgia, a woman is arguing in a child custody case that her partner should be considered as equivalent to a spouse because they both entered into a civil union in Vermont. During 2001, the Vermont House passed several bills limiting civil unions; they were all defeated in the Senate. A conservative Christian organization "Take it to the people," failed in their attempt to organize a referendum against civil unions.

Manuel Maravi, 29, and his partner visited Vermont for their union and then returned to Salt Lake City, UT. They have informally negotiated a family rate at a local gym and a couple's discount on their car insurance. He said: "We're trying to educate people by leading our life as a family and being open, not suing the government or anything like that. This was very significant for us to be recognized as a couple. It makes you feel like people respect your choice -- that you are free to join your life to the person you love. That makes you feel like a human being." 3
 
bullet2001-NOV-30: Attempt to overturn the statute: A group of town clerks, legislators and taxpayers attempted to have the Vermont civil union statute invalidated. They first brought their case before a Superior Court judge in the year 2000. That action failed. They have now appealing to the Vermont Supreme Court. Their argument was largely based on a betting pool among 14 House members on the day of the bill's preliminary vote. Each supported the bill and threw $1.00 into a pot. The legislator whose guess was closest to the vote count would stand to win a profit of $13.00. The argument was that all 14 members had a direct financial interest in the vote. House rules prohibit members from voting on an issue in which they have a direct interest. The bill was passed 76 to 69. However, if the 14 lawmakers had been disqualified, then the bill would not have passed. A separate argument was made by the town clerks. They are all opposed to homosexual behavior on religious grounds. They felt that forcing them to issue civil union permits violates their constitutional right to freedom of religion. 4
 
bullet2001-DEC: Supreme court rejects lawsuit: The Vermont Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit brought against the legislation that created civil unions for gays and lesbians in the state. The court ruled that the lawsuit was without merit.

On the matter of the betting pool, the court noted that the plaintiff did not initiate a formal complaint with the legislature, which the house rules permitted him to do. The court ruled that: "Whether an adequate objection on this basis was raised by Representative Metzger, or whether the speaker adequately responded to his concerns, are matters constitutionally entrusted to the sound and exclusive judgment of the House, not to this court."

On the matter of the town clerks, they dealt with what they said was "the highly questionable proposition that a public official ... can retain public office while refusing to perform a generally applicable duty of that office on religious grounds." They wrote: "We observe, however, that this proposition -- which means that the personal religious beliefs of a public officer may in some circumstances trump the public's right to have that officer's duties performed -- is neither self-evident nor supported by any of the cases cited by plaintiffs." The legislation does specify that assistants to the town clerk can be appointed to issue the licenses if the clerks have religious objections. The court stated that: "Thus, the law itself offers an 'accommodation' for town clerks with religious reservations about issuing a civil union license." 5

Year 2002 activity:

bullet2002-JAN-31: Status of civil unions: The House Judiciary Committee devotes each Tuesday to the discussion of civil unions. In violation of the Vermont Supreme Court's ruling on 1999-DEC, they have prepared a bill which would ban same-sex marriages. It would be appended it to an existing law which forbids incest. The bill was sent to the House, but was returned because its supporters had not explained its full legal ramifications. It is scheduled to be reintroduced on MAR-15.

Other anti-gay bills pending before the Vermont legislature would:
bulletMake it illegal to "encourage, promote or sanction homosexual or bisexual conduct" in schools;
bulletProhibit the recognition in Vermont of same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.
bulletRequire that civil unions only be performed for Vermont residents.
bulletAllow justices of the peace to refuse to perform civil union ceremonies. 6

Years 2003 to 2006 activity:

There were few developments during this interval. Most Vermonters seem to have accepted same-sex civil unions as part of Vermont culture.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Vermont Poll", Email to the Freedom to Marry Task Force,  at: http://www.ftm.org/usa/states/vt/
  2. Tom Hess, "Uprising in Vermont," Focus on the Family, at: http://www.family.org/ 
  3. Pamela Ferdinand, "With Vermont in the lead, controversy progresses," Washington Post, 2001-SEP-4, at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/
  4. Ross Sneyd, "Court hears challenge to civil unions law," The Barre Montpelier Times Argus, at: http://timesargus.nybor.com
  5. "Supreme Court shuts down opponents to civil unions law," Associated Press, 2002-JAN-3, at: http://www.foxnews.com/
  6. Patti Reid, "Gay Marriages on Ropes in U.S., Gaining Abroad," Women's E-news, at: http://64.81.195.15/article.cfm/

Copyright © 2001 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Last updated: 2009-MAR-21

Author: B.A. Robinson

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