Vermont launches revolution by allowing same-sex unions

Supporters see the first-in-the-nation law as a model for other states, but critics decry a decline of moral standards.

Clutching his parents' wedding rings strung together on a silver chain, Stan Baker couldn't stop grinning in the wake of the Vermont legislature's historic decision this week to approve civil unions - the legal equivalent to marriage for same-sex couples.

But for John Rafferty, who fingered his white ribbon of opposition as he strode stone-faced out of the Vermont House, the vote signaled a decline in moral standards.

As the emotional intensity of these men attests, Vermont's attempt to fashion a compromise in one of the most emotionally charged issues of the past decade will no doubt reverberate across the country. While it remains unclear whether other states will follow suit, many supporters believe iconoclastic Vermont has created a model that could easily be replicated. Indeed, similar bills have already been introduced in a handful of states, including Rhode Island, Maryland, and Wisconsin.

At the very least, observers say, it may force other states to confront the issue, in determining whether to uphold the benefits conferred upon same-sex couples who were joined in civil unions in Vermont.

"What it will do is force other states and communities to deal with [gay civil rights] at this level," says Peter Nardi, a sociologist at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. "Instead of marriage, which is such a loaded term, I think it will open up the possibility for civil unions in other states."

As of July 1, Vermont gay and lesbian couples will be able to go to their town clerks and apply for a civil-union license. Once certified by a judge, justice of the peace, or clergy member, they would gain all of the benefits the state confers in marriage - such as the ability to make medical decisions for their partners and inherit their property. If they want to end their union, they must go to family court.

But the state bill would have no effect on federal programs like Social Security. And it's not clear whether other states will recognize benefits like the right of Vermont gay couples to make medical decisions.

According to the "full faith and credit" clause of the US Constitution, states must recognize the laws of other states. But when Hawaii was thought to be about to legalize gay marriage in 1996, more than 30 states and the US Congress passed Defense of Marriage Acts, defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The Vermont Civil Unions law also defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Other states may recognize some of the benefits bestowed by the Vermont law. But because none has anything as expansive as civil unions, reciprocity may still have to be decided in the courts.

"I think that's up to each state on their own. I don't think we should tell them what to do," says Holly Puterbaugh, a Vermont tree farmer.

Ms. Puterbaugh and her partner, Lois Farnham, along with Mr. Baker and his partner, Peter Harrigan, were two of the three couples that brought a lawsuit in 1997 after they were refused marriage licenses at their town clerk's office. Last December, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the state was constitutionally required to bestow the same benefits and rights of marriage on same sex couples. But it stopped short of calling for gay marriage, and left the decision of how it should be handled to the legislature.

The task of crafting the bill was given to the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Tom Little. In urging his colleagues not to delay its passage this week, he contended that it would not affect most Vermonters. "But 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," he said.

But state Rep. George Schiavone (R), a leader of the opposition, said the lawmakers were forcing something on the state it is not ready for. "Stop shoving this bill down the throats of our people," he said.

There is one thing both sides agree on: The issue has deeply divided the state, which must now focus on healing. "A lot of the people I've talked to in the opposition are very sincere," says Lt. Gov. Doug Racine. "And while I can disagree with them, I can recognize their sincerity, and in turn ask them to recognize my sincerity. I think that's part of the discussion we ought to have now."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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