The Vermont Ruling: A Status Update
by Mary Bonauto, Esq.,
co-counsel in Baker v. State of Vermont
© September 27, 2000, Mary Bonauto
The Vermont legislature passed, and Governor Howard Dean signed, the nation’s first civil unions law this Spring. The law was passed in response to a court ruling in Baker v. State in which the Vermont Supreme Court required the State to provide the rights and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples. Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), with Beth Robinson and Susan Murray, was co-counsel in that case. Although activists fought hard for marriage, the legislature chose to create a new legal status called civil unions which confers all of the state law benefits and responsibilities of civil marriage.
Civil Unions are Happening
The new law became effective on July 1, 2000. Couples who join in civil union in Vermont have access to all of the state law-based rights and responsibilities of civil marriage. This is a milestone and the beginning of a new era, but it is not enough. For Vermonters, the 1,138 federal rights and protections associated with marriage remain “off limits,” and questions remain as to whether civil union spouses will be able to take their new legal status with them when they travel, and whether federal laws will displace the state law in certain areas.
So far, about 500 non-Vermonters have joined in civil union. Despite the breezy comments of journalists, GLAD and our colleagues from the other legal organizations believe that civil unions deserve respect in other states.
Vermont accomplished what it did through focus, unity, and the efforts of thousands of volunteers in the state who opened their hearts and their lives to policy makers. Now the extreme right wing is trying to crush those legislators who voted for civil unions, as well as the Governor, in the hopes that no other state will dare to provide any measure of equality for its citizens.
The primaries were held on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2000. Although the landslide predicted by the opposition didn’t materialize, a number of important and respected lawmakers lost their seats because they supported civil unions. The primary results make it clear that a change in power in the Vermont Legislature is a real possibility unless the supporters of civil unions are able to get their message out and combat the increasingly virulent rhetoric. According to Vermonters for Civil Unions, Inc., the tally is as follows:
8 Republicans targeted by opposition.
Results: 4 retained nomination; 4 lost nomination (one will be running as a Democrat in the general election, another as an Independent)
3 Democrats targeted by opposition.
Results: 3 retained nomination.
1 Democrat targeted by VCU.
Result: 1 lost nomination.
1 Democrat and one Republican targeted by opposition.
Result: Democrat won nomination and Republican supportive of civil unions lost his nomination in what is considered the biggest surprise of the primaries.
What this means, and should be no surprise, is that the state is divided. It will grow more so as the right wing pours in money to demean gay people as a whole, and the civil union bill in particular. We have been cast as Nazis, Communists, “killers of liberty,” spoilers of the stock market, and the source of every imaginable woe. While this could be funny, it’s not. And it makes people sick of the whole issue, and of the gay people who brought it to the fore.
On another level, while the supporters of civil unions took some hits (including House Republicans Marion Milne and John Edwards), Republican primaries are not a time when we should expect civil union supporters to shine. Of those who retained their seats in the House, one was Rep. Thomas Little of Shelburne, the chief author of the civil union legislation, and another is Cathy Voyer, a member of the House Judiciary Committee who was promised by Randall Terry that she would lose her seat over this issue.
Although Rep. Little is a “win,” his unknown opponent garnered 40% of the primary vote. In the Senate, Senator Mark MacDonald retained his nomination after stunning opponents of the legislation by voting in favor. As he explained on the Senate floor in April, he teaches social studies to eighth graders, and could not imagine how he could explain to them that he had done the easy thing by voting “no,” rather than the right thing in voting “yes.”
How Vermont Affects Your State
This affects you, in your state, because lawmakers in your state may well view the election results in Vermont as a measure of how safe it is for them to introduce civil union and marriage legislation. It is entirely possible that a few people will lose their seats. While that should not surprise anyone, it can be used as an excuse for not going forward with equality measures in other states.
And in a worst-case scenario: either the House or Senate could vote to repeal the civil union law in Vermont. That would in fact be a chilling message.
To find out how you can help — and you can help — please contact Vermonters for Civil Unions, Inc. [Note: This group changed it’s name and function. Now called Vermont Freedom to Marry Action Committee, Inc. (VFMAC), P.O. Box 1038, Middlebury, VT 05753; 802-388-6356; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.vtmarriageaction.org].
Regardless of the outcome of the elections, we believe lawmakers should file marriage legislation, and, in some cases, also file comprehensive civil union legislation. It may not pass right away, but the only way to get what you want is to ask for it. And of course, advocates should continue to explore well-planned and well-placed litigation.