HOUSTON VOICE • DECEMBER 24, 1999
Vermont lawmakers unlikely to approve gay marriages
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"This is a legal and cultural milestone,"
said Mary Bonauto, co-counsel for the three
couples who brought the case.
"The court recognized that same-sex couples need and deserve the same legal rights
and protections other people take for granted. The court's decision paves the way for
more secure families and stronger communities," said Bonauto, director of the Gay &
Lesbian Advocates and Defenders,
"Certainly we would have liked to see an
immediate order to end discrimination in
marriage laws themselves and allow same-
sex marriages, but if we have to get to full
equality in two steps rather than one, we
will continue to march forward," said Evan
Wolfson, marriage project director for the
Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund.
Because the Vermont Court based its decision on the Common Benefits Clause of the
state constitution, the case cannot be
appealed to the United States Supreme
Other states do not have to abide by the
ruling, but the court's decision can still have
a broad impact in the fight for equal rights
for gay couples nationwide, Wolfson said.
The ruling also "lays the legal foundation
for Vermont to be the first state to accord
full equality to same sex couples," Wolfson
said. "Once they do, fair-minded individuals will have a chance to see the sky doesn't
fall, and we can continue asking for sup
port and building on this."
Vermont unlikely to
The Vermont Supreme Court's ruling
allowed the state legislature a "reasonable period of time" to determine how to implement the
decision, although it also expressly gave the
same-sex couples the right to bring the case
back to court if the legislature did not act.
Vermont lawmakers predicted this week
that the state legislature would pass some
form of domestic partnership, with hearings
on the matter beginning as early as when the
legislature reconvenes in January.
Gay marriage "makes me uncomfortable,
the same as anybody else," Gov. Howard
Dean told the Associated Press. The governor, a Democrat, said he agreed with the
court's ruling and supports domestic partnerships, but not gay marriage.
"I trunk it's a step forward," he said. "It guarantees civil rights, but doesn't go into uncharted
territory where I think the majority of
Vermonters, who 1 think are fair-minded, would
have been very uncomfortable."
Michael Obuchowski, Democratic speaker of
the Vermont House, has been a supporter of gay
marriage, but said Tuesday he agrees that domestic partnership would be the easiest solution.
Groups opposing gay marriage vowed to fight
either approach to fulfilling the court's ruling.
"The options are going to be getting to the
legislature at least at a minimum and convinc
ing them that number one, it should not be
through a marriage license. [But] we don't
think domestic partnership is right either,"
said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the
American Center for Law & Justice, which
filed bnefs with the Vermont Supreme Court
arguing against the gay couples, and has filed
lawsuits challenging gay rights measures
around the country.
Gore praises ruling,
growing DP support
Vermont has one of the country's most progressive records on gay rights issues in the
nation, the state Supreme Court noted in its
ruling this week. In 1991, the state became one
of the first in the country to pass a statewide
law banning discrimination on the basis of
sexual orientation in employment, housing
and other public services.
Vermont's hate crimes law includes sexual orientation, and in 1996, the state's
General Assembly voted to remove barriers
to adoptions by gay couples. The state legislature also took the further step of protecting gay families through court-ordered
child support and parent-child contact in
cases where same-sex couples broke up.
Vermont became the best hope for advancing the fight for gay marriage earlier this
month, after the Hawaii Supreme Court
issued a ruling against three gay couples who
had sued for marriage licenses in that state.
The Hawaii court found in favor of the
couples in 1993, calling the marriage ban
gender discrimination and ordering the
state to show a compelling reason for denying same-sex marriage.
The Hawaii state legislature responded by
passing a law against same-sex marriage in 1994,
and Hawaii voters in 1998 approved an amendment to the state constitution authorizing the law.
The constitutional amendment made the gay couples' lawsuit moot, the Hawaii Supreme Court
ruled Dec. 9.
But the Hawaii Supreme Court, like the
Vermont Supreme Court, has held that
whether or not the state issues marriage
licenses to them, gay couples are entitled to
the same rights and benefits as heterosexual
couples—benefits that advocates say number
more than 1,000 at the federal level alone.
Domestic partnerships have also received
high profile support in the Democratic presidential primary, with both Vice President Al
Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley stating in public debates and interviews that they support full
rights for gay couples, but not gay "marriage."
The developments show a growing trend
in acceptance for gay couples, even without
providing the label of "gay marriage,"
Lambda's Wolfson said.
The next battleground for gay marriage will
be California, Wolfson said, where voters
must consider a March 2000 ballot measure,
known as "the Knight initiative" after its lead
sponsor, that would limit marriage to "one
man and one woman."
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