WASHINGTON -- Relying on a state constitution that dates to one year after American independence, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that gay and lesbian couples must be given all the benefits and privileges of married couples.
Though the court refused to give homosexuals the legal right to marry, its ruling -- the first of its kind in any state -- was a major breakthrough in the effort by gay rights advocates to gain equality for same-sex partnerships.
FOR THE RECORD - A headline on an article in yesterday's editions of The Sun about a Vermont Supreme Court ruling on the legal rights of gay couples stated that the decision could be overturned by legislative action. Overturning the decision would require amending the state constitution. Such an amendment begins in the legislature and must be approved by the voters.
The Sun regrets the error.
In the case filed by three gay couples, the state court declared that the state has "a constitutional obligation to give to same-sex couples the common benefit, protection, and security that Vermont provides opposite-sex married couples."
Evan Wolfson, director of the marriage project for Lambda Legal Defense Fund, a gay rights advocacy group, said, "This is a glorious day," adding: "Vermont's highest court has ordered an end to unequal treatment of lesbians and gay families."
Opponents of gay marriage and equal treatment for homosexual partners denounced the ruling.
Vermont was one of three states where gay rights forces had seen a chance to gain recognition of some right to gay marriage.
But in the two other states, Hawaii and Alaska, voters have amended the states' constitutions to bar any such recognition.
Because the Vermont decision was based solely on its state constitution and not the U.S. Constitution, it could be wiped out if the state document were amended to ban benefits to homosexual partners.
But that seems unlikely in a state that in the past has acted to expand gay rights: Vermont's legislature has repealed laws against homosexual sexual activity and has adopted laws that protect gays from discrimination in jobs and housing and gives them a right to adopt children.
As a ruling based on a state constitution, the Vermont decision cannot be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. But an issue for the highest court could arise if gay couples moved from Vermont to another state and tried to take their equal rights with them -- a move that might be resisted in many states.
Homosexual partners in Vermont will receive no immediate benefit from the ruling. The state court delayed its ruling to give the state legislature a chance to decide how to guarantee equal treatment for homosexual partners. One of the five justices dissented from that part of the ruling, arguing that homosexuals should be allowed now to marry.
The court's unwillingness to extend its ruling immediately to a right to marry drew praise from the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group that is among the leading opponents of same-sex marriage.
"Homosexual couples won't be flocking to Vermont," said Janet Parshall, a spokeswoman for the council. But, reflecting disappointment over the recognition of some measure of equality, she added: "The Vermont Supreme Court is still playing with fire by mandating sex-partner subsidies. It is dangerously wrong."
One option open to Vermont's legislature would be to allow those partners to marry. Such a step would trigger access to all the benefits of marriage without further legislative action.
But the legislature could also refuse to endorse marriage and instead set up a separate form of licensing or registration of permanent partnerships of homosexuals, with the same benefits as marriage. The state court suggested that as one possible approach.
The court said it was delaying the effects of the ruling because "a sudden change in the marriage laws or the statutory benefits traditionally incidental to marriage may have disruptive and unforeseen consequences."
But while it set no deadline, the court stressed that the legislature must consider the issue in an "expeditious fashion." It added that, if the legislature balks, homosexual partners could return to the court and ask for a right to marry in a full legal sense.
The court observed that the benefits that go with marriage "have never been greater" than they are now.
Once a method has been found in Vermont to assure equal benefits, these are among the legal rights that homosexual partners would gain:
A right to financial support from the "spouse."
A share of the partner's medical or life insurance.
A right to inheritances and to survivors' benefits if the other partner dies.
An option to sue for damages if the partner is killed by the act of someone else.
Joint ownership of homes and other property.
A right to family visits if the partner is hospitalized.
Though the ruling will have no formal effect outside of Vermont, gay rights advocates expect to use it as an argument for equal access to partner benefits in other states. In Hawaii, where this month gay rights advocates lost a challenge to a state law that limits marriage to a man and a woman, an effort will be made to gain access to the same benefits as married couples'.