Gay rights issue draws a fiery foe to Vermont

Anti-abortion leader organizes opposition to same-sex unions

March 06, 2000|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MONTPELIER, Vermont -- When the Vermont Supreme Court ordered the state to grant homosexual partners the same rights as married couples, the judges brought the potential for gay marriage closer to a legal reality. They also brought Randall Terry to town.

Terry imported his brand of in-your-face opposition from upstate New York to the staid Vermont capital to defeat the court's directive. He rented a storefront on the town's main street for his base of operations. In the window he hung this banner: "STOP HOMOSEXUAL MARRIAGES. NO DOMESTIC PARTNERSHIPS. IMPEACH SUPREME COURT JUDGES."

Terry, the founder of the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, arrived here as lawmakers began the sensitive and tricky task of writing a law that extends rights afforded through marriage to same-sex couples. Those rights pertain to health care, inheritance and child custody, to name just a few. Just trying to name this new legal coupling illustrated the difficulty of the task. Domestic partnership? Civil union? What?

When Vermonters meet tomorrow for their annual town meetings, voters in about two dozen municipalities will receive a ballot question on the domestic partnership issue. Eighty other towns will hand out an informal survey. Residents in a half-dozen more towns will be asked their opinion in voice votes.

Terry recognized the national implications of a legally sanctioned union of homosexuals and seized on it. He hopped in his Chevy pickup truck and drove from his home in Rochester to Montpelier in late January.

He leased the office two blocks from the gold-domed Statehouse and plastered the front window with the banner. He organized a group of 20 fundamentalist Christian ministers from Rhode Island, Ohio, Kansas, Alabama and elsewhere to come to Vermont to lobby against the bill.

Lawmakers have been flooded with protest letters from across the country. Dial the 800 number to Loyal Opposition, the group Terry formed to fight the bill, and staffers will ensure callers' feelings are made known to Vermont lawmakers.

"Randall Terry has been strutting around the Statehouse with groups of people, four or five steps behind him," said Val Vincent, a legislator from Waterbury, Vt. "He's been visible almost daily. Their language is offensive -- `You're doing the wrong thing. You're going to go to hell, and you're going to die.'

"We're getting barraged with these letters from people in California, states west of the Mississippi," added Vincent. "They're being mimeographed in groups of 24 and 25 and put in our mailboxes. He's the mailman."

`A sense of anger'

Rep. Thomas Little, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, described Terry this way: "He's the kind of person you know is in the room because he has a real kind of presence and exudes a sense of anger. He seems to be very skilled at the body language of menacing people and trying to intimidate people.

"At the same time, he can be very charming when he wants to," Little said.

Sitting in the Montpelier office of Loyal Opposition recently, the bearded Terry looked more like a Vermont environmentalist than a fiery orator. He wore a collarless denim shirt, suede vest, khaki cargo pants and lizard-toed cowboy boots. He mimicked an Irish brogue and joked with volunteers. He is unapologetic about his presence here.

"I was invited here by the Supreme Court decision," Terry said. "The decision itself acknowledged its impact on the nation. Our presence here shows we mean business. It's a constant reminder to them that this issue will not quietly go away. The bulk of the state is conservative. But the bulk of the legislature isn't.

"These legislators are not used to being held accountable."

The Supreme Court ruling in late December held that "the state is constitutionally required to extend to same-sex couples the common benefits and protections that flow from marriage under Vermont law" -- but stopped short of permitting gays to legally marry. It charged the Legislature with deciding how to implement its ruling: inclusion in the marriage law, a parallel domestic partnership system or a new equivalent.

The court ruling followed other state actions that benefited gay couples, including removing barriers to adoption by same-sex partners. The court imposed no deadline for the Legislature to act, but it set the stage for a season of debate and discourse.

Little said his Judiciary Committee modeled its remedy on the state's marriage laws. The proposed law is 30 pages long.

"The bill provides that once you've obtained a domestic partnership license, you have all of the rights and benefits as if you had a marriage license. So the breadth of the legal rights as well as the legal liabilities and responsibilities are as identical and as equal as we can figure it out," said Little. "But it's not called marriage."

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