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Civil Unions & Same-sex marriage in Vermont

House Committee activity

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Overview of the civil union legislation:

On 1997-JUL-22, two lesbian couples and one gay couple brought a lawsuit in order to obtain marriage licenses and to have their subsequent marriages recognized by the state. On 1999-DEC-20. the Vermont Supreme Court decided that the current law in that state violated the state constitution. It discriminated unfairly against homosexual couples. The court ordered the State legislature to correct the problem with appropriate legislation:

bullet That would allow gays and lesbians to marry; i.e. expand the right to marry to include couples of all sexual orientations. Currently, marriage is a special right in Vermont extended only to heterosexuals. OR
bullet Tthat would set up a parallel "domestic partnership" status to give gay and lesbian couples the right to register their relationship and receive the same state rights as heterosexual couples.

The House Judiciary Committee held public meetings and drafted bill H. 847 which was approved by a vote of 10 to 1. The bill was passed by the House on 2000-MAR-17.

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House committee action:

bullet 2000-JAN-4: Pre-hearing activity: Thomas A Little (R-Shelburne), Chairperson of the House Judiciary Committee wrote a letter to committee members, mentioning that:
bullet The Vermont Supreme Court has ruled "that the Vermont marriage statutes unconstitutionally discriminate against same-sex couples who seek to establish a permanent, stable family relationship."
bullet A new bill to authorize the recognition of same-sex families will start in the House Judiciary Committee, who will be conducting "the hearings, taking the testimony, conducting the research and drafting the...bill for consideration by the house.
bullet 2000-JAN-11 to 14 Committee hearing: Testimony was heard by the Committee:
bullet Ms. Murray and Ms. Robinson, lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the Baker case, stressed that the issue relates to civil marriage, not religious marriage. The court decision has no impact on whether a church decides to perform same-sex marriages or union celebrations. They felt that a "separate but equal" system of benefits for gay/lesbian couples were inherently unequal and might not be constitutional.
bullet Chief Assistant Attorney General (Mr. Bill Griffin) and Assistant Attorney General (Ms. Bridget Asay) reviewed the court ruling. They took no stand on whether the legislature should expand marriage laws to include same-sex couples or create an alternative legal structure such as domestic partnership. Griffin said that the former might be easier to defend legally. 
bullet Professor Peter Teachout of Vermont Law School suggested that the legislature has five options: 1) include same-sex couples in the marriage laws; 2) create a broad domestic partnership structure for same-sex couples; 3) create a broad domestic partnership structure for same-sex and opposite-sex couples; 4) create domestic partnerships but also amend marriage laws; and 5) create more than one "class" of marriage.
bullet Tom McCormick, representing the "Church of Latter Day Saints" [sic] said that, in his opinion, the court violated the separation of powers. He advocated either legislative restraint or a constitutional amendment forbidding same-sex marriage.  
bullet Hal Goldman, representing "Take it to the People," a group opposed to marriage equality, stated that the court ruling was improper. He recommended that the legislature create a constitutional crisis by taking no action on it.
bullet William O'Brien, representing the Roman Catholic Church said that the committee discussion should focus on ethics and morality.
bullet William Dorsch for the Vermont chapter of the National Organization for Women and a lesbian civil rights group expressed displeasure at the court ruling. He felt that the court should have given immediate access to marriage for gays and lesbians.
bullet David Coolidge is director of the Marriage Law Project which opposes same-sex marriage. He believes that extending marriage to all couples would destabilize marriage, Vermont communities, and the culture. He recommended that the committee violate the court ruling and take no action.
bullet Greg Johnson, of the Vermont Law School gave his opinion that only a marriage structure would completely satisfy the Court ruling.
bullet Paul Gillies, former Vermont secretary of state, reviewed the many changes in marriage since the 1770s. 1
bullet 2000-JAN-17 to 21: Committee testimony: The committee heard testimony from historians and lawyers about "...the legal and social history of civil marriage, the basics of Vermont's marriage and divorce laws," and the subject of "full faith and credit" of state laws (i.e., the portability of marital status to other states). 1

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bullet 2000-JAN-24 to 28: Committee hearing: The committee held a joint public hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee. About 1000 Vermonters attended the meeting. 115 witnesses were selected at random. Their testimony was

"... balanced but polarized, with about half the witnesses testifying in favor of extending full marriage rights to same sex couples, and half opposing the extension of any legal rights to same sex couples. The tone of the testimony and the demeanor of the witnesses (and of the crowd) were polite and respectful."

No witness appears to have supported the concept that the committee eventually compromised on: state recognition of gay/lesbian civil unions with the same rights and privileges as married heterosexual couples.

bullet 2000-FEB-01 - 04: Committee hearing: The Committee held a second public hearing. Another 110 Vermont citizens gave testimony. The hearing was described as "intense but respectful..." It involved "...perhaps the largest crowd ever to assemble in the State House." Also studied were the Hawaii situation, domestic partnership laws in other countries, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Loving v. Virginia which legalized inter-racial marriages across the U.S. The committee heard testimony from the Human Rights Commission, the Governor's Commission on Women and the attorneys for the Baker plaintiffs. Vermont's clergy, representing three Christian faith groups (Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and United Church of Christ) and two Jewish faith groups, and one unidentified minister. They gave conflicting testimony, which seems to have neutralized their input to the process. Roman Catholic bishop Angell urged the committee to preserve traditional, heterosexual marriage at the expense of same-sex couples. He also opposes the creation of domestic partnership legislation "because I believe it is only a political stepping stone toward the legalization of Same-Sex Marriage." He called for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as only between one man and one woman.
bullet 2000-FEB-08 to 11: Committee prepares first draft: The committee accepted neither of the views expressed by approximately equal numbers of the public at the hearings. It rejected the recommendation that marriage be expanded so that gays and lesbians could marry. It rejected the recommendation that the no rights and privileges be given to homosexual couples. The committee took a straw vote. It revealed that only three favored expansion of the marriage statutes, while eight favored a type of civil union with rights and privileges equal to marriage. They finished a working draft of the bill to recommend to the House. "The draft is patterned after the form of the Vermont marriage statutes, and provides that the legal attributes of civil marriage apply to persons who validly enter into a domestic partnership."
bullet 2000-MAR-01: Bill H. 847 passes committee: After two months of often emotional debate, Vermont's House Judiciary Committee approved a bill for consideration by the legislature. The vote was 10 to 1. 1
bullet 2000-MAR-08: Ross Sneyd, who has covered the Vermont state house for the Associated Press for nine years, commented: "This has been an amazingly civil process. The public hearings themselves were textbook examples of how you can agree to disagree. I've never seen anything like it." 2

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. A summary of the House Judiciary Committee activities, and a list of pending bills on same-sex partnerships is available online at: 
  2. JoAnn DiLorenzo, "A more civil union: Vermont's courtship with same-sex marriage promises to transform the gay rights movement nationwide," Valley Advocate, Hatfield MA, 2000-MAR-8. Online at:

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Copyright 1998 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated: 200
Author: B.A. Robinson

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