Vermont at the threshold

March 03, 2000|By Chuck Colbert

LAWMAKERS IN VERMONT stand tiptoe at the threshold of tolerance. Will they make same-sex marriage legal for the first time in the United States? Although Hawaii and California have already passed domestic partnership laws, Vermont proposes enacting a far more extensive same-sex marriage law.

So far the country road to same-sex unions in Vermont has been paved with legislative responsibility, public hearings and positive results. Recently the Judiciary Committee of the state's House of Representatives indicated, in an informal 8-3 vote, that it would draft "a broad civil rights bill that does not cross the legal threshold of marriage."

To their credit Vermont lawmakers have been dealing directly with the task at hand -- providing gay and lesbian couples the same "common benefit, protection and security of the law" guaranteed to opposite-sex couples. Lawmakers have no choice: They must comply with the state Supreme Court's legislative order to grant legal benefits and protections to same-sex couples. This can be achieved by including gays in existing civil marriage laws or by creating a parallel domestic partnership system.

Despite the ruling's clear intent, legislators face a daunting task. Many residents of the state, including Democratic Gov. Howard Dean, are "uncomfortable" about same-sex marriage.

Mr. Dean recently clarified his position. "I'm against gay marriage," he said in a radio interview.

His view is reflected in a recent poll of 623 registered Vermont voters in which 52 percent oppose the Supreme Court ruling, 38 percent agree and 10 percent are undecided.

Yet the voices of tolerance reverberate in the state capital. Consider Rep. Steve R. Hingtgen, who has offered a compelling rationale for legal same-sex marriage instead of domestic partnership.

"For all those who have come before this committee preaching hate in all its poor disguises, whether with Bible, a law degree or Ph.D. in hand," he said, "those who have filled our ears with hate, they will not be sent a message of rebuke by this committee by our choosing domestic partnership. The hateful will have been strengthened by our decision.

"Pursuing the domestic partnership path validates the hate. Going with domestic partnership validates the bigotry. It does more than validate it. It institutionalizes the bigotry and affirmatively creates an apartheid system of family recognition in Vermont," Mr. Hingtgen said.

Rep. William Suchmann suggested that honesty and fairness should be the compass by which to guide citizens, who like himself, are uneasy with same-sex marriage.

"Yes, I am uncomfortable seeing two adults of the same gender openly displaying affection. But that is my problem. I have a much bigger problem with a community that passes judgment on a specific group of God's children and deems them unfit to share in an institution that draws its strength from compromise and unselfish love," Mr. Suchmann wrote in a letter to one Vermont newspaper.

A minority of the House expressed dissatisfaction after the committee voted to go the domestic partnership route.

"I'm disappointed we're not doing marriage. But I also want to emphasize that if our committee and Legislature adopt a comprehensive domestic partnership bill, it will be the single most forward-looking piece of legislation for gay and lesbian people in the entire United States, and this is still very big news," said Rep. William J. Lippert Jr., who is gay.

A broad civil-rights bill that does not cross the legal threshold of marriage will never fully guarantee equal rights for gays.

Perhaps 10-year-old Courtney Dozetos, who testified at committee hearings, said it best: "It would make me feel special and good if my moms could get married. I don't and probably never will understand why that can't happen."

Rep. Dean Corren puts the issue in it's proper historical perspective. He understands that extending civil marriage to same-sex couples is the only true "remedy for what may be the last great instance of legal discrimination based solely on bigotry."

American history is rife with lessons on bigotry. Separate but equal did not work in the South. It took bold action -- integration -- to foster true equality.

Vermont legislators need to be bold. Legalize same-sex marriage.

Chuck Colbert, who serves on the board of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, is a graduate student at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass.

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