Is a Rose by any other name is Still a Flower?
Dateline: March 19, 2000
On March 16, 2000, the Vermont House, following the dictates of a recent Vermont Supreme Court decision, passed a bill which provides for gay and lesbian couples to form "civil unions" that carry many of the benefits and responsibilities of heterosexual marriages.
The Vermont court had ruled in December 1999, that under the Vermont constitution gay and lesbian couples either had to be provided with the right of marriage already accorded to male/female couples or some alternate means of establishing rights equal to those of marriage for gay and lesbian couples.
The bill does not legalize gay or lesbian marriage but rather took the second [somewhat more difficult and less brave] route instead setting up a network of state benefits for gay couples, covering everything from hospital visits to inheritance rights to state taxes. Regardless, if the bill does become law as is expected, Vermont will have gone much further than any other state in providing official recognition to and sanctioning same-sex unions.
The vote was close, a simple 76 to 69 majority approving the bill. While hundreds lined the galleries of the House chamber to watch the debates, supporters attached pink stickers to their lapels with opponents wearing white.
The Vermont State Senate is expected to approve the measure by the end of April, and Democratic Governor Howard Dean has said he would sign it if there are not significant changes.
It remains an open question whether the "Defense of Marriage" acts passed by more than 30 states (including, most recently, California) in response to the fear that recognizing gay and lesbian marriages might cause them to fall into the sea ( ... that's as rational as any other stated bases!) and which allow states to not recognize gay and lesbian marriages performed in other states will apply in the same manner to any civil unions established in Vermont when and if the new law passes.
The way these Unions would work is simple: Gay and lesbian partners would apply for a license from a town clerk and get their civil union certified by a justice of the peace, a judge or a clergyman. Partners in a civil union would be eligible for 300 state benefits given to married couples covering every phase of life. They could transfer property, make medical decisions for each other, inherit estates and oversee one another's burials. "Unioned" couples would also qualify to file a joint state income tax return.
Not only would Vermont gays and lesbians be provided the privileges of marriage, they would also take on the responsibilities and obligations, including a provision that partners who want to end their civil union would have to go through a dissolution proceeding in family court, similar to divorce proceedings. Unionizing couples would also assume each other's debts.
In fact, the only substantive differences is that the license would be called a "Civil Union" license rather than a "Marriage License" and the resulting relationship would, at least by the state, be called a "union" instead of a "marriage."
However, because of the federal DOMA, the federal government still would not recognize such unions with regard to such things as immigration rights, Social Security benefits and federal taxes, along with over 1,000 additional rights and privileges accorded to married couples under federal law.
While the bill comes close to recognizing gay and lesbian marriage, lawmakers reserved the term "marriage" for the union of a man and a woman, feeling the need to adopt an amendment making that clear.
Response to this "next step" has been as could have been predicted:
"We think it's terrific. This is a quantum leap forward in recognizing that gay and lesbian families deserve the same legal protection as other families. It's a whole new realm."
"It's exciting. If this keeps moving, this is going to be the first of many states in this country where gay and lesbian couples are recognized as families deserving of respect and of the protection of the laws, and that's a big step." and "The work on this won't be done until same-sex couples are included in the marriage laws."
"It's deeply troubling, anything that changes the basic definition of marriage is opening up a Pandora's box that will not easily be closed. Unless Vermont is prepared for the first man to show up at city hall with two wives, they should not go down this road."
"I've been a Vermonter all my life, I was born here, and I just really didn't want Vermont to become the first state to break this barrier. It's not an easy issue, there's a lot going on that I just wasn't ready for at this time." and "My personal belief is that marriage is between a man and a woman, and I actually think that's the personal belief of most Vermonters. I think we're moving very quickly on this issue. Too quickly."
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