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April 25, 2000 06:10pm
Same-sex Marriage Bill Heads to Vermont Governor
Source: News Wire

Vermont's controversial bill to establish "civil unions" granting same-gender couples all the state-level benefits of marriage passed its last real hurdle April 25, as the House approved Senate revisions by a vote of 79 - 68. Despite opponents' hopes that the failure in the Senate of proposed constitutional amendments to reserve "marriage" for heterosexual couples (as state law already does) would lose "civil unions" the slim majority by which the 150-member House first passed the bill in March, the measure actually gained three votes.

The Senate passed the bill last week, and Governor Howard Dean (D) has promised to sign it, perhaps before this week is out. The Senate version advanced the date that the first civil unions can be performed, which will now be July 1.

The new law will put Vermont a giant step ahead of any other state in recognizing gay and lesbian couples.

Leading civil unions opponent Representative George Schiavone (R-Shelburne) made one last-gasp attempt to block the bill, saying, "We are running way ahead of the people. The people are choking on this bill. Give us time to do better." But his proposal to delay the House vote until November 30 - after Election Day - was soundly defeated by a vote of 84 - 63.

While few opponents had spoken during debate in the Senate, House members were just as impassioned as they were in March. Representative Nancy Sheltra (R-Derby) recalled the 19th century death sentence for sodomy in Vermont, and said, "Why would you encourage anal sex, sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS among a part of our society?" Her rhetoric drove a dozen supporters to walk off the floor in protest.

Representative Thomas Little (R-Shelburne), who led the House Judiciary Committee in drafting the first-of-its-kind measure in response to a December Vermont Supreme Court ruling, assured the House that, "We have worked as thoroughly, and even more thoroughly, on this bill as any I have worked on during my time here." He told opponents that, "The granting of the equal protections of the law by providing the legal protections, benefits and responsibilities that flow from marriage will not diminish your humanity, your dignity, your freedom or independence. The continued denial of these legal protections, benefits and responsibilities to a small but vulnerable class of Vermont's citizens diminishes their humanity, dignity, freedom and independence."

Although civil unions offer some 300 state benefits and obligations in Vermont, they do not qualify couples for more than 1,000 benefits established under federal law. Couples from other states are free to visit Vermont to contract civil unions, but there is little reason to believe that any other state will recognize them, and couples must return to Vermont to dissolve them.

For complete coverage of the passage of Vermont's civil unions bill, see the April 25 edition of PlanetOut News.

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