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Same-sex marriage (SSM) in Vermont

A study by a legislative commission

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Overview:

Same-sex couples have been able to obtain civil unions (CUs) since 2000-JUL-1. Justices of the peace and clergy are under no obligation to conduct civil union ceremonies; some did not. CU couples receive the same rights, privileges, obligations and responsibilities as Vermont has always given to married couples. However, they are still denied the 1,049 federal "rights, benefits and privileges" that are routinely given to married couples.

In 2007-AUG, a Commission was established by the Vermont legislature to study the possibility of allowing loving, committed same-sex couples to marry. Members of the public who testified at the hearings were overwhelmingly in favor of marriage equity through the introduction of same-sex marriage (SSM) in the state.

SSM study:

Former state representative Tom Little (R) chaired the 11 member Commission on Family Recognition and Protection. They studied whether the definition of marriage in Vermont should be expanded to include loving, committed same-sex couples. Other members of the bipartisan commission included former Gov. Phil Hoff, Johnson State College president Barbara Murphy, former legislators, a quarry owner, and an Episcopal priest. They held their first meeting on 2007-AUG-23 and dealt with administrative issues, including the organization of public meetings.

Some opponents of same-sex marriage allegedly decided to boycott the public meetings:

bulletStephen Cable, president of Vermont Renewal, said

"As a result of their actions and refusal to address the issues we have raised, we are asking Vermonters to boycott the hearings and pay no attention to the [commission's] report." 1

bulletCraig Benson, founder of Take It to the People, promotes a plebiscite on same-sex marriage. He said:

"This political farce is a waste of taxpayer's time, attention and tax money. This is the left having a dialogue with the far left while everyone else is left out." 1

Other comments:

bulletVermont House Speaker Gaye Symington (D) said:

"I think for many Vermonters the question has been when, not so much as whether, we would eventually recognize same-sex union through marriage. I think many people saw civil unions as a first step." 2

bulletGovernor Jim Douglas (R) said:.

"I really think it's important for the Legislature to work with me to focus on what is important to everybody in Vermont and that's the cost of living in Vermont." 2

bulletSenate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin (D) gave his support to marriage equality even though he voted against the year 2000 civil union bill. He said:

"I think now most Vermonters would acknowledge it hasn't impacted their families in any way, shape or form."  2

Between 2007-OCT-10 and 2008-FEB-11, the Commission held eight public hearings at different locations in the state. They held a legal issues symposium on 2007-OCT-29. They also created a website to communicate with the public. 3

The Commission received over 100 written comments by mail or Email. At the public meetings, they heard from over 240 persons; about 220 supported same-sex marriage; about 12 opposed marriage equity. It is not known whether this 20:1 ratio was caused by:

bulletA general acceptance of SSM by Vermonters, or
bulletThe decision by some religious and social conservatives to boycott the Commission's meetings.

The Commission reported that:

"With rare exceptions, the witness testimony and audience behavior were civil and respectful. Both sides commented that the hearings were a good opportunity to express their views on the issues."

The Commission noted some recurring themes favoring SSM during the public meetings:

bulletCivil unions (CU) are separate and unequal.
bulletCU status is generally not 'portable' to other states and countries.
bulletThe differences in language between CU and marriage are powerful.
bulletCU couples have more hurdles in income taxes and health care.
bulletChildren thrive in CU families.
bulletDire predictions years ago of the effect of CUs never materialized.
bulletSSM presents no threat to opposite-sex marriage.
bulletCivil marriage should be a secular right for everyone.
bulletReligious marriage is not a civil right.
bulletVermont is ready to take the next step.
bulletThere has been an evolution in attitude towards greater acceptance of gays and lesbians since CUs were legalized.

Among the small percentage of testimonies that opposed SSM, the Commission noted other recurrent themes:

bulletCUs gave sufficient rights and privileges to same-sex couples.
bulletVermont should not enter another divisive debate.
bulletSSM fundamentally misunderstands the institution and role of marriage.
bulletOpposite-sex marriage is God ordained and the only form of marriage that is biblical. (One wonders how many holding this opinion is aware of Solomon's hundreds of wives and hundreds of concubines).

The legal symposium studied the consequences of introducing SSM in Vermont from a legal perspective. On 2007-OCT-29:

Professor Greg Johnson favored SSM. He said:

"... there are some 1,096 federal rights and benefits of marriage
that civil union couples cannot enjoy because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), ... which defines marriage for purposes of federal law as only the union between one man and one woman.... there are eight states that have recognized the legal rights of such unions: New Hampshire and California through statute; Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York through a state attorney general's opinion; and Massachusetts, Iowa and West Virginia through a judicial decision. Massachusetts same-sex marriages are legally recognized in four states: as civil unions in New Hampshire by statute and in New Jersey by attorney general opinion, and as marriages in Rhode Island and New York by attorney general opinion. According to the Vermont Attorney General's Office, Vermont would most likely recognize a Massachusetts marriage as a civil union. ... 26 states have amended their constitutions to limit marriage to one man and one woman and 19 states have enacted statutes to that effect, while 17 states have amended their constitutions to prohibit the recognition of any same-sex relationship, including civil unions. These state prohibitions are commonly referred to as 'state DOMAs' or 'mini-DOMAs.' According to Johnson, litigation to overturn state DOMAs faces substantial challenges based on current court precedents, except where a state DOMA prohibits recognition of any same-sex relationship and lacks any rational basis for the discrimination" 5

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Monte N. Stewart testified about "traditional marriage" -- the restriction of marriage as a special privilege available only to opposite-sex couples. He described:

"... the case for [traditional] marriage as a vital social institution whose meaning and value are intrinsically, inseparably, and universally (across time and geography) bound to the traditional legal and social union of one man and one woman. Mr. Stewart said that this meaning of marriage yields important and valuable 'social goods' for our society, including the optimum family structure for nurturing and raising of children. He spoke of the right of a child to grow up with and bond with his or her biological mother and father as interwoven with the social goods derived from traditional marriage."

He appears to be unaware of the many references in the Bible and many other cultures up to the present time that allow one man to marry multiple women, and rarely, the reverse. His reference to biological parents may be troubling to some. It might be interpreted as an attack on adopting parents, adopted children, and children born to a loving couple by artificial insemination.

He said that:

"... the 'real reason for the marriage battle in Vermont' is the social
benefits, protections, rights, and obligations and that proponents of same-sex marriage are incorrect when they assert that inclusion of gay and lesbian couples within the marriage laws will enhance the social  status and well-being of those families. ..."

"Vermont law has no power to usher same-sex couples into the venerable man/woman marriage institution; all Vermont law can do is suppress the man/woman institution, fabricate in its place the radically different genderless regime, and then assure that the marriage of no couple in this State (whether man/woman or same-sex) is legitimate unless sanctioned by that regime." 6

By "genderless" marriage, he apparently does not refer to the couple having no gender. He refers to the government not refusing a marriage certificate and registration on the basis of the couple's gender(s).

Beth Robinson, Esq. was co-counsel to the plaintiffs in the case of Baker v. State -- the lawsuit that eventually brought about CVs in Vermont. She also chairs the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, and is a strong supporter of SSM for all loving, committed couples. She identified six areas in which she found the CU law deficient, and cited specific examples of how SSM would bring significant positive changes to civil union couples. They are:

  1. A host of privately conferred financial benefits and protections awarded by third parties on the basis of marriage (including health insurance).
  2. Security in traveling from state to state (sometimes called “portability”).
  3. Critical federal protections (including social security survivor benefits, family friendly immigration laws, and benefits for military spouses).
  4. Participation in an institution that carries considerable personal significance for many, and undeniable social significance.
  5. A legal status that is widely understood throughout the country and the world, communicating familial commitment.
  6. Inclusion and equality. 7

Commission report issued:

The Commission's 32 page report was issued on 2008-APR-21. 4 They did recommend additional areas for study. However, they did not offer recommendations about the implementation of SSM in the state. They were not asked to. They wrote that:

"... making such a recommendation would undercut the purpose
and usefulness of its work and this report. Simply put, we were asked to listen to the testimony of Vermonters on these issues, to look at the legal issues, and to report on what we found. It is the role of Vermont's policy-makers and elected officials to read and reflect on this report and in their best judgment determine what steps to take in their
role as public servants of the people of Vermont. 8

No action on the report was expected until 2009, in order to avoid making same-sex marriage an election issue in 2008.

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 Panel Considers Marriage Redefinition," CitizenLink, 2007-AUG-24, at: http://www.citizenlink.org/
  2. "Vermont looks at upgrading civil unions," 2007-JUL-26, at: http://www.gay.com/
  3. Vermont Commission on Family Recognition and Protection
    2007-2008 Legislative Session, at: http://www.leg.state.vt.us/
  4. "Report of the Vermont Commission on Family Recognition and Protection," 2008-APR-21, at: http://www.leg.state.vt.us/ This is a PDF file/
  5. Ibid, Pages 18 & 19.
  6. Ibid, Pages 21 & 22.
  7. Ibid, Page 25.
  8. Ibid, Page 29.

Copyright © 2001 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Last updated: 2007-AUG-26

Author: B.A. Robinson

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