Senator says country, state have changed in 9 years since civil union law was enacted
MONTPELIER, Vt. — Legislative leaders in Vermont pledged Thursday, March 5 to push for passage of a gay marriage bill before the session ends in May, saying allowing civil unions was a good start but it’s now time to end the "inequality" of existing laws.
"I do think that we’re in a different America and a different Vermont than we were nine years ago," said state Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin.
Vermont endured a fractious fight over civil unions before becoming the first in the nation to approve of them in 2000. California, New Jersey and New Hampshire have followed suit, and Massachusetts and Connecticut now allow gay marriage.
Opponents say Vermont lawmakers should be addressing more pressing issues, starting with the economy. Gov. Jim Douglas — who wouldn’t say Thursday if he’d sign a same-sex marriage bill — said the Legislature should be focusing on economic issues.
Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith, who lead the Democrat-controlled legislature, said that while their focus this year is the economic downturn, the Legislature can handle more than one issue at a time.
Vermont couples who are in civil unions are unfairly denied Social Security survivor benefits and other benefits accrued to married couples, according to Shumlin.
He favored civil unions over gay marriage in 2000 but believes now that Vermont should make it legal for gays and lesbians to wed.
"Justice too long delayed is justice denied," said Shumlin, D-Windham.
A same-sex marriage bill has already been introduced in the Senate, but a different version will be introduced after lawmakers return from the two-week Town Meeting Day break on March 16 and start a week of hearings on the topic before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
A draft of the bill posted on the Legislature’s Web site says town clerks would be authorized to issue marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples starting Sept. 1, with each applicant specifying whether they want to be designated "bride," "groom" or "spouse. But it makes no mention of any rights that would be conferred by gay marriage that go beyond what people in civil unions now enjoy, other than marriage licenses.
According to Shumlin, marriage would give gay and lesbian couples Social Security benefits that people in civil unions don’t get. It also would give more rights to them in the event that one spouse had to make emergency health decisions for the other, and allow them to qualify as spouses in the eyes of health insurance companies, he said.
On March 18, a legislative panel will hold a hearing at the Statehouse to get input from Vermont residents.
Shumlin said he doesn’t believe the bill will generate the level of rancor seen after the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that barring same-sex unions was unconstitutional and ordered the Legislature to enact a law accommodating them.
Others aren’t so sure.
"We ought to be concentrating our attention on the economic plight of Vermonters, and not spending time on a divisive topic to sap political energies in order to give a label — not any substantive right — to homosexuals," said gay marriage opponent Rep. Duncan Kilmartin.
"I don’t think my constituents elected me to the House of Representatives to spend my time adding a label to the substance of the panoply of rights which gays who desire a civil union can receive," said Kilmartin, R-Orleans.
The civil unions law took effect on July 1, 2000, and it came with political fallout. In that year’s elections, 17 incumbents who voted in favor of civil unions lost their seats.
Smith said he expects the House will pass a gay marriage bill.
Stephen Cable, who founded a nonprofit group that opposed civil unions in 2000 and opposes gay marriage now, said civil unions didn’t change the institution of marriage but same-sex marriage will.
"What it comes down to is gay marriage would say that Vermont legally believes a man and a woman are interchangeable, that Vermont no longer will strive for every child to have a mother and father in marriage and that those who don’t agree are bigots.
"I’m sick and tired of being called a bigot because I want every child who can to have a mother and a father," said Cable, who lives in Rutland and is president of Vermont Renewal.
Douglas spokeswoman Dennis Casey said lawmakers should be worrying about the economy first.
"Considering that we’re in the deepest recession our country has faced in generations, the governor is hopeful that when lawmakers return from this two-week break, they’ll give the time and consideration necessary on economic development issues that will get the economy moving again," she said.