Vt. legislature weighs OK for gay marriages
MONTPELIER - Nine years after it was the scene of a bitter fight over civil unions, Vermont's State House is again a gay-rights battleground.
More than 200 opponents to same-sex marriage, cheering and wearing buttons that read "Marriage - A Mother & Father for Every Child," converged on Montpelier yesterday as lawmakers began hearings on a bill that would allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.
If the bill is approved, Vermont would join Massachusetts and Connecticut as the only US states that allow same-sex marriage. The measure would replace Vermont's first-in-the-nation civil unions law with one that allows marriage of gay partners beginning Sept. 1. Civil unions, which confer some rights similar to marriage, would still be recognized but would no longer be granted after Sept. 1.
Supporters cast the debate as a civil rights issue, saying the civil unions law enacted by the state in 2000 has fallen short of the equality it promised same-sex couples. The appeal of civil unions has declined, too: In 2001, the state granted 1,876 civil unions, compared with only 262 last year.
Passing a gay marriage bill "is one of the most important civil rights issues of our time," said Greg Johnson, a Vermont Law School professor who testified yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
While the bill won't guarantee federal benefits, supporters say it would provide societal recognition, improve access to health benefits, and eliminate one of two obstacles to federal protections such as Social Security survivor benefits.
Opponents say gay marriage would undermine traditional male-female marriage, rendering men and women interchangeable and destroying the connection between children and marriage. They want the question put to voters in a referendum.