Gay Rights 'Civil Union' Nearing Reality In Vermont
By Nat Frothingham, Special to Stateline; Jake Brown, Special to Stateline
MONTPELIER -- If a bill currently headed toward passage in the Vermont legislature is signed into law as expected, gay and lesbian couples in the Green Mountain State soon will be able to do something that they can't do elsewhere in the United States: they'll be able to stroll into any town hall, get a "civil union" license, have it approved, and then enjoy all the rights and benefits of traditional marriage.
The Vermont House of Representatives narrowly passed a sweeping bill March 16 that created the new "civil union" system and it is now moving toward approval in the State Senate. Gov. Howard Dean has indicated he will sign it in its present form.
The bill's language makes it clear that any and all benefits that flow to couples in traditional marriages would be afforded to same-gender couples. But the bill also specifies that the term "marriage" under Vermont law is a union between a man and a woman.
The legislation is advancing even though Vermont is strongly split on the issue. Of the 50 towns that recently held citizen advisory votes, all rejected gay marriage and 40 rejected parallel rights and benefits for gay couples. Scores of letters have appeared in newspapers around the state, both pro and con, and the close vote in the House also demonstrates the split: 76 voted for civil unions, and 69 voted against.
While the bill specifies that same sex couples cannot get "married," it does clearly bestow upon those who wish to enter a civil union all the same benefits enjoyed by married couples. In the bill, there is a "nonexclusive" list that includes: real estate acquisition, ownership or transfer; causes of action for wrongful death, emotional distress, and loss of consortium; prohibitions against discrimination based on marital status; workers' compensation benefits; hospital visitation and notification rights; terminal care documents and durable power of attorney; family leave benefits; immunity from being forced to testify one partner against another; and protection against spousal abuse.
Entering, and Leaving, A Civil Union
Here's how a couple could get joined in a civil union. First, they would go to a town or city clerk's office and get a license. Within 60 days, they would take that license to someone authorized to certify the civil union. The bill lists judges, justices of the peace, or members of the clergy as eligible. (However, no religious organization is bound to certify civil unions, according to the bill.) The couple could set up pre-nuptial agreements just like married couples, and they could dissolve the civil union as married couples would divorce. Those proceedings would take place in family court, as they do for married couples. People who want to enter a civil union would have to be 18 years old, competent, not party to another marriage or civil union, and of the same sex. The bill bars close relatives from entering into civil unions. The language reads: "A woman shall not enter into a civil union with her mother, grandmother, daughter, granddaughter, sister, brother's daughter, sister's daughter, father's sister or mother's sister." There is similar language for men.
Court Decision Prompted Sharp Debate
Longtime state house observers say that this issue is as charged as any in recent memory. It was brought to the fore December 20 when the Vermont Supreme Court issued a controversial ruling holding that the Vermont Constitution guarantees to same-sex couples all the rights and benefits enjoyed by partners in traditional marriages.
In its December ruling, the court enjoined the Legislature to come up with a new law that would guarantee such rights and benefits to same-sex couples. Since the legislative session opened in early January, lawmakers have faced intense lobbying both from those who oppose any legal recognition for same-sex partnerships and from gay and lesbian advocates who have been demanding full marriage.
There are other components to the bill besides gay rights. One sets up a "reciprocal beneficiaries" program under which blood relatives or people related by adoption can secure some of the benefits afforded married couples, but not all. They include hospital visitation and medical decision making, decision making relating to anatomical gifts, disposition of remains, and other rights and benefits.
And finally, the bill creates an oversight commission with a life of three years to gather information about the civil union program and suggest ways to improve it.
Early indications, at least from the standpoint of the business community, are that there will be little if any problem with the system. Interviews with leaders of business groups revealed an apparent lack of concern over the measure's potential effect on the bottom line. A spokesperson for the Vermont Employers Health Alliance, Sandy Drew, said the alliance did a survey of its members in January and found that about 30 percent of the 75 member businesses already offer health coverage to domestic partners of employees, and the businesses reported no hike in claims due to granting the benefits.
Opponents of domestic partnership legislation had warned that HIV cases covered under health care benefits would hike claims and raise premiums.
"I was surprised there were as many offering the domestic partnership coverage as there were," Drew said. "I don't think (the bill) will be quite as detrimental as some people think -- it doesn't seem that you'll have extraordinary claims experience."
Tom Somers, a Burlington attorney who represents management in employment in labor relations agreed that business leaders appear not to be worried about the impact of the bill. He noted, however, that it is possible that firms are waiting until the measure moves closer to finalization to weigh in.
"It looks like employers are not treating this as an earth-shattering thing. It hasn't created a lot of concern," he said.