Vermont Panel Foreshadows Outcome of Gay Rights Debate
By Nat Frothingham, Special to Stateline
BURLINGTON -- In a lopsided test vote Wednesday, the Vermont House Judiciary Committee refused to consider sanctioning same sex marriage but said it would draft legislation described by the panel's Republican chairman as "a broad civil rights bill that does not cross the legal threshold of marriage."
The committee's decision to legally recognize domestic partners is the first hint of what the Vermont Legislature might do as it struggles to comply with a December 20 Vermont Supreme Court ruling that held that all of the rights and benefits of marriage should flow to same sex couples. The court instructed the legislature to act and suggested it could either allow gays to marry or provide for a domestic partnership arrangement. The issue sparked a firestorm of controversy in the state and is being watched across the country.
Even though today's committee decision cleared the air and suggested the direction the legislature will likely take, there continues to be a sharp split between legislators who advocate gay marriage and those who believe something like a domestic partnership or broad civil rights bill is the route to take. Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat, has consistently said he supports a domestic partnership option.
Before Wednesday's vote, a gay marriage proponent on the committee -- Steven Hingten, a self-employed Burlington Progressive -- said that pursuing the domestic partnership path "creates an apartheid system" with one set of arrangements for gays and a traditional marriage system for heterosexual couples. Another committee member on the losing side of Wednesday's 8-3 informal vote said that the failure to pass a gay marriage bill would validate the hatred and discrimination aimed at gays and lesbians, and the third dissenting committee member said he believed an inclusive gay marriage bill would be easier to defend in a court challenge than a domestic partnership bill.
A number of committee members on the winning side of the vote took note of the prevailing political climate in Vermont.
They felt the public wasn't ready for a same sex marriage bill, and in the halls of the legislature before the committee meeting, the buzz was that there weren't enough votes in the House to pass a gay marriage bill.
Spotlight on Vermont
The gay marriage debate has drawn considerable out-of-state attention. Just last week Randall Terry, the controversial founder of the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, rented an office in Montpelier, 200 yards from the Statehouse. On the other side of the issue, out-of-state gay advocate groups are watching Vermont closely as a move toward gay marriage here could begin to advance such discussions in other states.
In Vermont, the same sex marriage issue has dominated the first five weeks of the legislative session. At two evening public hearings in January, about 4,000 people packed the Statehouse. Many wore buttons and waved placards. The crowds were so large that they spilled out of the hearing room in the House chamber and into the Statehouse corridors where people lounged on the formal, red carpets, ate pizza and drank soda. Hundreds of people, often in emotional testimony, offered testimony arguing for gay marriage or condemning the homosexual lifestyle. Few identified any common ground. The chief of the capitol police, David Janawicz, said that in his 8 years at the Statehouse that he'd never seen crowds as large.
Polls have consistently shown that the majority of Vermonters don't believe gays and lesbians should have the right to marry and two conservative politicians have encouraged local municipalities across the state to put the question to the voters on Town Meeting Day, March 7. The Vermont Secretary of State's office has confirmed that more than three-quarters of the state's 256 municipalities will consider the issue.
Election Year Hot Potato
The pressure on legislators from both sides finds many lawmakers caught between a rock and a hard place: if they don't go for gay marriage, gays, liberals and progressives may try to kick them out of office in November. Those voting for gay marriage risk the ire of conservative elements of their constituencies.
"It's a lose-lose proposition" for lawmakers, said an opponent of gay marriage from Essex who came to one of the public hearings. A lobbyist working against gay marriage said of the lawmakers and their fear of the issue: "These are political animals and a lot of them like their jobs."
What has become clear in public testimony was how very little middle ground there is. Gay advocates argue that marriage is an issue of equality and civil rights; that setting up a separate classification like domestic partnership is inherently discriminatory; and that unless the state creates a fully-inclusive marriage statute the state will be sending a signal to the public that gays are different and unequal and that it's ok to bash gays.
The arguments from the other side are often based on religious convictions. Gay marriage foes say the gay lifestyle is tragic, unhealthy and immoral. They argue that allowing gays and lesbians to marry gives the lifestyle legitimacy. Many also claim that giving gays the right to marry weakens the traditional "one man one woman" marriage bond. More extreme opponents of gay marriage suggest that state sanction of the homosexual lifestyle will lead inevitably to bizarre marriage combinations: one man and five women in marriage, the marriage of three women; a man and his brother.
Ron Newhart of Essex, a Christian fundamentalist who came to one of the public hearings, asked rhetorically: "Where does it stop?"
Because of the national stakes riding on what happens to gay rights legislation in Vermont, both sides have retained the state's top lobbyists. Those opposing gay marriage have retained William Shouldice & Associates, which is being paid in the range of $3,000 to $7,000 per month. That group is working toward a constitutional amendment affirming that only heterosexual couples can marry.
Those who advocate full inclusion of gays in the Vermont marriage statute have hired the lobbying firm of Kimbell Sherman and Ellis. At this writing, their fee for services was not available.
The three bills introduced for consideration by this year's Vermont Legislature illustrate the wide range of views on the same sex marriage issue. H.694 would allow same sex marriage and was sponsored by six House members. S.248 would create a domestic partnership arrangement and was sponsored by one state senator, and H.479 which would forbid same sex marriage was sponsored by 57 House members.