WASHINGTON (BP)–Vermont moved nearer what could be a watershed for marriage and the family in American life when its Senate approved expansive rights for homosexual couples in votes April 18 and 19.
The Senate voted 19-11 both days in favor of legislation legalizing “civil unions” for homosexuals. The two-day process follows a 76-69 victory for same-sex unions in March in the House of Representatives. The Senate version, which differs only slightly from the House bill, will return to the other chamber for a final vote. Gov. Howard Dean has indicated he will sign the bill.
If the legislation becomes law, as it appears it will, Vermont will far surpass any other state in its approval of same-sex unions. From the state’s perspective, it would provide the privileges and rights of marriage without the name and without the federal benefits given marriage.
The measure would provide state benefits and rights previously bestowed only on spouses in marriage. While the legislation describes marriage as only between a man and a woman, it enables homosexuals to receive licenses from town clerks and to be joined in a union that can be dissolved only in family court.
Before passing the bill, the Senate defeated two pro-marriage attempts to amend the state constitution. One would have defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The other would have acted to block a court from extending marriage beyond a one man-one woman union.
The Senate action came despite an outcry from citizens inside and outside Vermont against the proposal. In March, about 50 of the state’s 246 communities voted against legal benefits for homosexual couples on Vermont Town Meeting Day, while only 10 voted in favor. In addition to a strong opposition effort by Vermont residents contacting their legislators, a nationwide campaign led by Focus on the Family produced hundreds of calls from out of state to the governor and legislators. Hundreds of calls from non-Vermont residents favoring the legislation also were being received, according to the governor’s office.
Conservative religious and family leaders decried the Senate vote.
“It’s a tragic day for the state of Vermont, for the Senate has ignored the will of the people,” said Janet Parshall, spokesperson for the Washington-based Family Research Council, according to an Associated Press report. “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.”
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, reiterated his opposition to the Vermont measure and his concern it could impact the rest of the country.
“Given the tragic track record of the federal judiciary over the past half century,” Land said, “I fear that it is only a matter of time before the federal courts attempt to federalize this issue and override the more than 30 states that have passed Defense of Marriage Act laws to protect them from having to accept as a fait accompli what Vermont has inflicted upon its own citizens.
“Consequently, I believe that it is imperative that we begin now a process to amend the Constitution of the United States to state unequivocally that marriage is to be defined as between one man and one woman. Even the runaway federal judiciary has difficulty ignoring the explicit language of the Constitution.”
Land’s call for an amendment to the federal constitution may be a new approach to dealing with Vermont’s “civil unions” measure, but his concern about its effect on other states is held by many opponents of the effort to legalize same-sex relationships.
There is no residency requirement in the Vermont legislation. David Coolidge, director of the Washington-based Marriage Law Project, has predicted homosexual couples 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.
The legislation was brought about when the Vermont Supreme Court ruled unanimously in December the state had unconstitutionally denied same-sex couples the benefits reserved for marriage. The high court decided the legislature should decide whether to legalize homosexual marriage or establish a domestic partnership system.