Most of the
Green Mountain State's activists and politicians, whose personal
and vitriolic debate in 2000 created the nation's first civil
union law, find it hard to believe their once-radical political
compromise has become the moderate alternative to gay marriage.
a marvel that has happened," Vermont Law School professor
Greg Johnson told the Associated Press in March 2004.
only taken these few years for the phrase to have universal currency,"
those who helped draft and pass the law in 2000 point out that
shift may have more to do with the search for a compromise than
support of full rights for homosexual couples.
of people who might not have thought it remotely acceptable three
to five years ago all of a sudden look at it as a lot more palatable
than outright marriage," Vermont Attorney General William
Sorrell said recently.
But the road
to the nation's first civil union law was anything but smooth
and the repercussions of how it is written continue to impact
the political and legal lives of those touched by it.
By 1996, more
than 30 states had outlawed gay marriage and the federal government
had passed the Defense of Marriage Act -- all aimed at denying
the benefits and government certification of same-sex unions.
In response, homosexual advocates targeted the noted bastion of
traditional liberalism, Vermont, hoping the state would support
offering legal protections for gay couples.
couples filed suit arguing that Vermont's decision to deny them
marriage licenses violated the state constitution's "common
benefits" clause that guarantees the state will grant rights
and benefits equally to all residents.
December 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court weighed in, saying that
Vermont was violating its own constitution, but the high court
left it up to the state legislature to decide on a remedy.
faced two immediate options. One was to permit gay marriage, something
most members opposed and, according to polls at the time, only
13 percent of state residents supported. The other was to amend
the state constitution to eliminate marriage from the "common
benefits" provision, a process that would take four years,
during which gay marriages would have to be granted.
two unpopular routes, the legislature started to draft a compromise:
a state-recognized union of two people that granted marriage rights,
but avoided the formal authorization of gay marriage.
It may have
appeared the state was splitting hairs, but legal scholars said
it was an important distinction. The U.S. Constitution, under
its "full faith and credit clause," would have forced
other states to recognize the rights of couples married in Vermont.
Civil unions allowed Vermont to grant the rights without forcing
other states to recognize the "marriage."
appeared to have a compromise, debate in the legislature lasted
four months and at times became personal and acrimonious.
is a sad, dark day for the state of Vermont, and God help us all,"
state Rep. George Allard said, part of a vocal and vehement group
opposing the bill.
others turned their backs on another colleague, William Lippert,
when the openly gay legislator called on representatives to pass
not a burden on society," Lippert told a silent House. "We
are not sinful. We do not indulge in unnatural behavior. We do
not ask for special privileges."
In the end,
both the state Senate and House adopted a bill and Democratic
Gov. Howard Dean signed it into law, setting July 1, 2000 as the
day it would go into effect. It was also what Dean later described
as "the most important event in my political life."
never got to have a discussion with myself about whether this
made any political sense or not because I knew that whether I
was going to win the next election or lose it, that every day
I was going to have to look at myself in the mirror and decide
what kind of human being I was," Dean told Tim Russert on
NBC's Meet the Press.
on July 1, the nation's first civil union ceremony was held in
Brattleboro, Vt., where the town clerk opened the office late
at night to accommodate the event. As of the beginning of March
2004, town clerks throughout the tiny New England state have issued
some 6,800 civil unions. But of those, the vast majority -- more
than 5,700 -- went to people from outside Vermont.
In the days
and weeks after July 1, hundreds of couples flooded the state
with requests for a union.
from Vermont, the union provided specific state-granted rights
given to married couples -- from the ability to make medical decisions
for partners and visit during family hours to breaks on property
taxes and inheritances. Federal rights, like income tax breaks
and Medicare and Social Security benefits, remained unavailable.
from outside the state sought official recognition of long-term
of non-Vermonters seeking state recognition of their relationship
led to a legal wrinkle for many couples. Once in the Vermont civil
union, it was difficult for people to get out of the relationship
if it failed.
no state recognized the quasi-gay marriage that civil unions represented,
no state was willing to offer the quasi-gay divorce. A Texas court
initially granted one, but the judge reversed his decision when
he realized that to nullify the union was to acknowledge it had
been a legal union.
legislators worried that courts might be flooded with such cases,
so they wrote into the law that although any couple can get a
civil union, at least one partner must be a Vermont resident in
order to dissolve it. But the issue appears to be a minor one
since out of the 6,800 unions, some 1,000 for Vermonters, only
29 couples have sought and received dissolution.
and political ramifications for Vermont, though, ran deeper than
the legal snags. The passage of the nation's first civil union
law led to the formation of angry counter-groups working under
the banner of "Take Back Vermont."
In the fall
of 2000, Democrats lost control of the state Senate, in part due
to the vote. Dean, who had cruised to multiple reelections, narrowly
fended off a campaign by a leading opponent to civil unions.
the laughingstock of the country," Dick Lambert, who first
created the "Take Back Vermont" signs and sold 5,000
out of his garage within three months of the law taking effect,
told The Washington Post. "They think we're the gay state,
but this has nothing to do with us."
But the uprising
appeared to be short-lived. Although several legislators were
defeated in 2000, several had won their seats back by 2004. Town
clerks and justices of the peace have also seen communities begin
to accept the civil union concept that once outraged them.
there's still a fair amount of grumbling, there's much more of
an attitude of, 'Well, if that's what they want to do, let them,'"
Linda Weiss, a justice of the peace in Corinth, Vt., told the
James Douglas, a Republican elected after Dean retired to run
for president in 2004, reflects this shift in opinion. In 2000,
Douglas said he believed the legislature was moving too quickly
to invent the civil union. Now, he endorses the law, and is opposed
to a federal constitutional amendment on gay marriage.
most Vermonters have come to accept it, to live with it,"
Douglas said recently to a group of reporters.
acceptance, the Green Mountain State remains alone. Four years
after the law's passage, and even as Massachusetts legislators
eyed a similar civil union law, Vermont remains the only state
to offer homosexual couples a legal partnership with all the state
benefits that come with marriage.
By Lee Banville, Online NewsHour