by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
April 18, 2009
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It was a great day on Tuesday when Vermont became the fourth state to legalize same-sex marriage and the first state in the country to enact it without a court order.
It has been nearly nine years since the Vermont passed the first-in-the-nation civil unions law. At the time, it was viewed as a radical step. Today, it is seen for what it really is - a separate and not quite equal version of marriage that carries little weight beyond our borders.
Since the first civil union was performed in Brattleboro on July 1, 2000, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa have legalized same-sex marriage. California did the same briefly last year, until a referendum repealed the law. New Hampshire and New Jersey have civil union laws, but New Hampshire is considering a similar push to legalize same-sex marriage.
The Vermont bill had wide support in the House and Senate and the rancorous debate we saw in 2000 over civil unions was not repeated. A legislative commission formed nearly two years ago by Democrats to study the legal, social and practical implications of a bill that would allow gay and lesbian couples to marry and gather input from Vermonters found strong support among residents for same-sex marriage.
Most Vermonters have accepted civil unions, and see that they did nothing to hurt the state or weaken the institution of marriage. Even the most ardent foes have recognized that the institution of marriage continued on as it did before. Granting a limited set of rights and responsibilities to same-sex couples did not diminish heterosexual marriage.
But it was only a first step. In 2000, civil unions were an important first step toward recognizing the civil rights of same-sex unions. In 2009, they are seen for what they are - a separate and not quite equal institution without the same legal weight as marriage.
That status is shown in the number of civil unions that have been granted. In 2001, when Vermont was alone, the state granted 1,876 civil unions. Now, with gay marriage in Massachusetts and Connecticut and civil unions in New Hampshire and New Jersey, only 262 civil unions were granted in Vermont last year.
There were those who said that same-sex marriage would undermine traditional male-female marriage and destroy the connection between children and marriage. But compared to the overheated atmosphere in Montpelier nine years ago, what we saw over the past few weeks was a lot calmer. The anti-gay marriage forces are smaller in number this time around, while the pro-gay marriage forces are better organized and have done more to educate Vermonters about the fundamental civil rights issue at the heart of the debate: every couple, straight or gay, deserves to have the same rights and responsibilities that come with marriage.
If there was anyone who came out looking bad in this debate, it was Republican Gov. James Douglas. He complained that it was a distraction and that lawmakers should be focused on the state's economic and budget problems. Saying he believed that marriage should be between a man and a woman, he announced his intention to veto the bill before the House had a chance to vote on it.
Fortunately, enough lawmakers disagreed with Douglas and believed that civil rights are not something to be dealt with only when it's convenient or when the economy is good. There was no longer any defensible reason to maintain the second-class status of civil unions. So, over the objections of Douglas, the Legislature overrode his veto and did was right. According to state archivist Gregory Sanford, this was only the seventh veto override - out of 134 gubernatorial vetoes - since the 1830s.
Marriage is as much, if not more, of a civil institution than it is a religious one. Just as heterosexual couples can get legally married in a civil ceremony by a justice of the peace without ever setting foot in a church, starting Sept. 1, same-sex couples in Vermont now have the same option. And while any church that believes same-sex marriage violates the tenets of its faith is free to say no, any church that recognizes that everyone should have the right to marry the person they love can perform the ceremony if it chooses to.
Certainly, the climate for change nationally is not good. It's true that passing a same-sex marriage bill won't guarantee federal benefits - at least it won't until the day that the odiously misnamed federal Defense of Marriage Act is repealed. And 29 states have passed constitutional amendments barring the recognition of same-sex marriages. But this law will, however, provide societal recognition, improve access to health benefits and eliminate one obstacle to federal protections such as Social Security survivor benefits.
Slowly but surely, however, attitudes are starting to change. In Vermont, we've already seen the change. We were first with civil unions, and, at the time, they were a necessary starting position in the process of moving toward full equality for all couples regardless of gender. But it was time for the next logical step. It was time to legalize same-sex marriage in Vermont. And I am proud that we did.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For extra added thrills, read his ongoing daily blog on The Harvard Classics.