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Repeal of civil unions precedent percolating in Vermont legislature

WASHINGTON (BP)–For almost two months, Vermont legislators have been grappling with the thorny issue of repealing the unpopular civil unions bill, a law that grants same-sex couples almost all of the rights of marriage. But legislators believe the House will not be ready to vote on repeal until January 2002, CNSNews.com reported Feb. 27.

“It’s an issue that will not go away,” one commentator said.

“I feel we have a strong enough vote on the House floor this session to repeal civil unions,” said Republican Rep. Nancy Sheltry. “The Senate is a different matter.”

Promising to repeal civil unions, Republicans won control of the House last November for the first time in 14 years, gaining 16 seats and bringing their number to 83 out of an elective body of 150 delegates. Sixty-three seats went to Democrats, about a dozen of whom pledged to vote with opponents of civil unions.

In the Senate, Republicans gained one seat, bringing their total to 14, with 16 Democrats.

Democratic Gov. Howard Dean, a strong supporter of civil unions, won 51 percent of the vote in a hard-fought campaign for a sixth term, defeating for the second consecutive time Republican Ruth Dwyer, and Anthony Pollina, the Progressive candidate, who won 10 percent.

Of 1,722 civil unions granted to date in Vermont, 396 have gone to state residents and the rest to out-of-state couples.

Even before Dean signed the civil unions law last April behind closed doors, Vermont voters targeted lawmakers who supported civil unions.

Grassroots organizations also began to examine the appointments process for the Vermont Supreme Court, which they felt acted unjustly when it ruled that same-sex couples should be given the same rights as married couples. The court then tasked the legislature with crafting a civil unions bill that would make that happen.

Now Republican Rep. Bud Otterman is proposing to take the Supreme Court appointments process out of a select governor-controlled committee and return to a legislative-controlled process that would subject justices to review every two years, CNSNews.com reported.

While many feel that the furor over civil unions was overdone during election season, the issue is currently a political motivation in the House, especially among members who campaigned on repealing the bill.

Republican Rep. George Schiavone has reintroduced a bill that states simply that “man should not marry man and woman should not marry woman.” The bill also stipulates that Vermont will not recognize same-sex “marriages” that may be performed on state residents in other venues, such as the Netherlands or Canada.

Known as the “Mini-Defense of Marriage Act,” Schiavone’s bill has more than 80 signers and is expected to pass.

Rep. Peg Flory, Republican chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, is sponsoring a bill that proposes to extend reciprocal benefits packages. Supporters of this bill argue that since civil unions deal with giving benefits to same-sex couples that are not available to other couples, legislation instead should address partnership and contract law and avoid the pseudo-marriage angle.

Under this legislation, civil unions would be broadened to include various domestic partnership benefits, as between an elderly mother and children, siblings living together, or wards and guardians.

An ardent opponent of civil unions, Sheltra is sponsoring a bill that seeks to repeal and nullify reciprocal benefits. “If any bills come out of committee that are not full repeal, I plan on doing [an] amendment on the House floor that will offer a vote for repeal,” she said.

“But I’m optimistic overall because there has been a change in the House of Representatives. What’s made the difference is that some Christians have stepped up to the plate and run for office.”

Legislators also are looking at a number of small bills, including one that proposes to give freedom of religious conscience to justices of the peace and town clerks not to issue civil unions if it goes against their religion.

Currently 36 states have passed some form of Defense of Marriage Act; of the remainder, many feel their laws are sufficiently specific to withstand possible legal challenges by same-sex couples applying for marriage licenses.

Last year, Nebraska passed a DOMA bill that excluded civil unions, making it the only state to address the civil unions issue.

Same-sex couples who obtain a civil union in Vermont can use the certificate to challenge the courts in their home state.

“I think we are going to see more and more states, particularly states that passed DOMA laws, either amending those or adding to them to nullify so-called civil unions. That continues to be the fallout from the Vermont decision,” said Michael Johnston, director of Kerusso Ministries.

Robert Knight, director of cultural studies with the Family Research Council, said civil unions should not be something conservatives are defending 10 years from now.

“They need to turn this back,” he said. “All too often the left consolidates its gains and conservatives keep drawing the line backwards until they’re defending liberal social policies that would have been considered beyond the pale a few years before.”
Morahan is a senior writer with CNSNews.com. Used by permission.

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  • Lawrence Morahan