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Civil Unions in Vermont

News: 2000-JAN to JUN

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Sponsored link.

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Year 2000 activity:

bullet2000-FEB-17: Roman Catholic demonstration: Most Reverend Kenneth A. Angell, Bishop of the Diocese of Burlington conducted a rally and press conference at the statehouse. Present were "about 200 pastors of the Greater Burlington Evangelical Association, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington and other Clergy Association and denominational groups." He advocated that the legislature poll the people and, if necessary, violate the VT constitution by ignoring the Supreme Court ruling. He based his arguments on the Bible. He concluded:

"We have hope that Vermonters will demand a Constitutional Amendment to protect and preserve "Traditional Marriage" between one man and one woman. And finally, we have hope that Christ will heal His Church and bring it once again into One Body. With Martin Luther King, Jr., we proclaim, "We shall overcome! We shall overcome! We shall overcome!"

bullet2000-FEB: Opinion Poll: Senator Bill Doyle has distributed an opinion poll sheet. 1 He urges that citizens organize town meetings during 2000-MAR, and obtain the sense of the public (in favor, opposed, not sure) on a number of questions:
bulletShould the Vermont legislature authorize same-sex marriages?
bulletShould the Vermont legislature provide benefits to same sex couples as for married couples? 
bulletShould the Vermont legislature oppose both same sex marriage and domestic partnership?
bulletShould the Vermont constitution be amended to prohibit same sex marriages?
bulletAdditional questions were included about hazing, night driving for youth, presidential candidates, etc.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington is cooperating with Senator Doyle in this survey.

bullet2000-FEB: Roman Catholic response: The church is distributing a petition which states that "We, the undersigned, urge you to amend the Vermont Constitution, in this session, to state that marriage in Vermont is exclusively reserved for unions between one (1) man and one (1) woman, only." The petition appears strange for two reasons:
bulletThe petitioners ask that the legislature amend the state constitution in its current session. Yet, they must know that the process for amending the constitution is done by public vote, and then only after a laborious process over many years.
bulletThe constitutional amendment is not really needed, as marriage in Vermont has always meant a union of one man and one woman. There were no plans to change it. The current legislation leaves marriage intact and merely creates a parallel system of civil unions for gays and lesbians.
bullet2000-FEB: Straw poll: VOTE.com started a poll to ask whether Vermont Governor Howard Dean should sign a bill to allow same-sex civil unions. The options are two: whether "Homosexuals should have the legal right to unite," or "Gay couples shouldn't get the benefits of marriage." As of 2000-MAR-22 at 13:30 ET, the vote was 52% in favor of the right to unite and 48% opposed. 57,987 votes had been cast. 
bullet2000-MAR-29: Focus on the Family campaign:  ReligionToday reported that Focus on the Family, a fundamentalist Christian agency, has mounted a campaign to encourage conservative Christians to contact Vermont political leaders and ask them to oppose a bill that would give homosexual couples the same legal benefits as married couples. Tom Minnery, Focus' Vice President, said that the bill "is a cowardly attempt to redefine marriage in a legal sense without calling homosexual unions 'marriage.' Legislators are trying to have it both ways," by saying they don't support gay marriage but voting for a "quasi-marriage system" that equates homosexual partners with married couples. Minnery expressed concern that American gay and lesbian couples could form legally recognized civil unions in Vermont and then return to their home states and ask that their legal status be recognized. He commented that "Lawsuits could become Vermont's biggest export, overtaking Ben & Jerry's ice cream and maple syrup."
bullet2000-MAR-30: Bill status: The Conservative News Service reported that the bill is currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Hearings were held. The committee expected to prepare legislation for submission to the Senate, perhaps in early April. In early March, a series of 30 town meetings were held; all but four voted against domestic partnership legislation. Michael Johnson of Kerusso Ministries suggests that the politicians are worried about the bill affecting the chances of their re-election in November.
bullet2000-APR-3: Special posting: CitizenLink, a service of a Fundamentalist Christian agency, Focus on the Family, issued a "special edition." This is the first such mailing that we have ever received. They quote David Coolidge, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Marriage Law Project:

"In its present form, H. 847 does not require Vermont residency to establish a civil union. We expect that gay partners in other states will go to Vermont to register their relationship as a civil union, then return to their home state to seek recognition of their union, possibly by challenging existing marriage laws." Curiously, Focus asks their Vermont subscribers to contact their legislators and "urge them to OPPOSE H. 847 and SUPPORT A CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT DEFINING MARRIAGE AS BETWEEN ONE MAN AND ONE WOMAN."

[Author's note: It is difficult to see what such an amendment would accomplish. Vermont state law already restricts marriage to one man and one woman. An amendment would have no impact at all on the proposed civil union law.]

bullet2000-APR-18 Urgent appeal: Focus on the Family continued its urgent appeal to citizens of Vermont and of the rest of the U.S. to defeat the bill.  They suggest that individuals call Senator Richard Sears, chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee and ask him "to support a religious exemption amendment to H. 847.

[Author's note: The scope of this proposed amendment is unclear:
bulletIf they want to see a clause added to the bill that allows clergy to refuse to solemnize the civil union of a gay or lesbian couple, then the amendment would be redundant. No priest, minister or pastor in Vermont has ever been required by law to marry a couple. There is nothing in H. 847 that would require a clergy person to conduct a union service for a gay or lesbian couple. 
bulletPerhaps they mean a clause that would allow civil servants to refuse to issue a civil union certificate if it is against their religious beliefs. This clause could be unconstitutional if it resulted in every employee in a town hall refusing to provide service to a couple. The Vermont has already ruled that the government must supply civil union or marriage certificates to all who qualify.]
bullet2000-APR-19: Responses to the passage of the civil-union bill: After the passage of the bill in the Vermont Senate, responses were somewhat predictable:
bulletSandi Cote, who is planning to sanctify her 33 year relationship with Bobbi Whitacre when the civil union law is passed, said: "It's a bittersweet victory, I think,, for a lot of us. To have to stop short of the goal [of marriage]...It's disappointing.
bulletBeth Robinson, a lawyer in the case, said simply: "It's great that it passed...What's greater to me is the margin by which it passed. That shows me the Senate understands that gays and lesbians need and deserve the same protections as heterosexuals in our society and that's a great breakthrough."  
bulletSenator John Crowley (R) wondered whether would it have the tendency to encourage homosexuality. 
bulletSen. James Leddy (D) said civil unions would not undermine his 28-year marriage -- or anyone else's: "There's nothing in this court decision, nothing in this bill, nothing in the committed relationships of two people that presents a threat to my marriage."
bulletJanet Parshall, spokesperson for the Fundamentalist Christian Family Research Council said in a statement: "It's a tragic day for the state of Vermont, for the Senate has ignored the will of the people. But it's an even sadder day for the state of marriage, for the Senate action today was a direct assault on this sacred institution." She did not explain how civil unions would negatively impact marriages in the State.
bulletDavid Smith of the gay-positive Human Rights Campaign said that: "Vermont is taking care of its gay and lesbian citizens in a way that other states are not...Vermont is restating its commitment to fairness by today's action."
bullet2000-APR-25: Comment by House Judiciary Chair: Apparently addressing heterosexuals in Vermont, Thomas Little said:

"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."

bullet2000-APR-25: The civil union bill passed the Vermont legislature. 
bullet2000-APR-26: Governor Howard Dean signed the bill into law.
bullet2000-APR-27: Negative comments by conservative Christians: There were many objections from conservative Christians about the civil-union bill. According to the People for the American Way:
bulletPresidential candidate Alan Keyes drew parallels between homosexuality and rape, pedophilia and adultery.  He claimed that lesbians and gay men represent "a new effort to encourage us all to become individuals so enslaved by passions that we have redefined human nature...We cannot accept this new form of slavery.
bulletFormer presidential candidate, Gary Bauer called the decision "an unmitigated disaster" and claimed that it was in some ways "worse than terrorism."
bulletJanet Parshall, spokesperson for the Family Research Council (FRC) compared the Vermont Supreme Court Justices to "bad magicians trying to make the dignity of marriage disappear...These judges may wear black robes, but that doesn't mean they're wizards who can transform marriage into whatever they want it to be."   
bulletFRC, in a press release, criticizes the Court for "mandating sex-partner subsidies" and claimed that it...amounted to tyranny over people who hold to common sense morality."
bulletA number of conservative Christian agencies, including Focus on the Family, Center for Reclaiming America, and Public Advocate of the United States organized mass drives to bury the Vermont senate under anti-civil-union letters and phone calls. 2
bullet2000-APR-28: ReligionToday comment: Howard Dean (D), "Vermont's governor, was barraged with 20,000 letters opposing homosexual 'civil unions.' " He said: "Undoubtedly this will be an election year issue...But the legislators that voted on it didn't think about politics and, frankly, neither did I."
bullet2000-JUN-16: Startling development: State Representative Nancy Sheltra stated that "Some of the House representatives decided before the roll call vote was actually taken that they would bet on how big a difference the vote would be." Each of 14 representatives tossed a dollar into a pool -- a violation of house rules. A lawsuit has been filed with the Vermont Superior Court by Sheltra and Steve Cable, a member of the group "Who Would Have Thought?" If each of the 14 had not voted, the legislation would have be defeated in the house by seven votes. Sheltra said: "I don't know where it's going to go. I just say pray, pray, pray, pray, because God can intervene here." On JUN-26, Judge Stephen Martin refused to block the law; he said that the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate how the law would cause them harm. The plaintiffs' only appeal option would be to the Vermont Supreme Court -- the group that ordered the legislature to provide benefits for gays and lesbians that are equivalent to those enjoyed by married couples. That would have been an interesting prospect.
bullet2000-JUN-19: State officials to refuse to cooperate: A number of town clerks have decided to refuse to issue licenses for gay and lesbian couples.

Town Clerk Helen O'Donnell from Tunbridge VT told CNSNews.com:

"I have resigned...Under my moral beliefs, I feel I cannot issue the licenses. While the law allows me to appoint someone to act in my place, I didn't think that was right either, so I did what I had to do. I resigned." She discussed the matter with her pastor. "He showed me relevant portions of scripture, but he didn't try to persuade me. He told me my actions should be based on my convictions. ... Some of my colleagues told me they will stay in office and fight the law and take the consequences."

According to Steven Jeffrey, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns:

"Title IX of the Vermont Public Accommodations Act also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, and town offices, where the licenses are issued, have been determined by our courts to be places of public accommodations."

Fines of $1,000 per violation are possible. 

According to CNSNews.com:

"An informal opinion issued by the Vermont attorney general says a person who is denied a civil union license can sue the town clerk or the town for compensatory and punitive damages. The aggrieved person or couple can also ask the attorney general to go to court on his or her behalf. The state's Human Right's Commission could also intervene on behalf of the couple, under the state's public accommodation law, which prohibits discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation." 3

Three justices of the peace have announced that they will not perform civil union ceremonies. Under state law, they are not required to carry out either marriage ceremonies or civil unions.

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Subsequent developments are reported in a separate essay

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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. Senator Bill Doyle's opinion poll is at: http://www.vermontcatholic.org/
  2. People for the American Way Foundation, Right wing watch online, 2000-APR-25.
  3. "Vermont prepares for first-ever civil unions," CNSNews.com, 2000-JUN-30. Online at Maranatha Christian Journal at: http://www.mcjonline.com/ 

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Copyright 1998 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Last updated: 2007-AUG-27

Author: B.A. Robinson

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