• Conn. ruling may boost Vt. gay marriage movement
    By DANIEL BARLOW Vermont Press Bureau | October 17,2008
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    MONTPELIER — The path to legalizing same-sex marriage in Vermont may have just gotten easier in the past week.

    Eight years after Vermont's landmark civil union law, three states have moved beyond that level of recognition to fully embrace same-sex marriage, including Connecticut, where its top court last week ruled that civil unions fall short of marriage's full benefits.

    This latest development comes just six months after a Vermont Legislature-sponsored commission — after months of testimony and public input — urged lawmakers to "take seriously" the difference between civil unions and same-sex marriage.

    Bills proposing gay marriage are commonly introduced at the Statehouse, but usually gain little traction in the relevant committees. But advocates and lawmakers say these and other developments across the country have changed the political climate, increasing the chance that the Legislature will seriously consider a bill early next year.

    "I feel the landscape has changed, especially from eight years ago," said Rep. Mark Larson, D-Burlington, who was the lead sponsor of a gay marriage bill during the last legislative session. "I don't think we'll see the divisiveness that we saw before. Vermont has come a long way since then."

    With more than two months before the start of the new legislative session and an election coming next month, advocates and lawmakers were mum on who might be major players in this discussion and what the main strategy to pass such a bill would look like.

    "I haven't been talking strategy with anyone yet," said Rep. Jason Lorber, D-Burlington, a co-sponsor of Larson's gay marriage bill. "But I expect it will come up next year and I certainly hope that we pass it."

    Lorber agreed that public and political sentiment toward the rights of gays and lesbians has changed over the last several years. Vermont could join other states in legalizing gay marriage, he said, putting more pressure on the federal government to eventually do the same — which would allow same-sex couples the opportunity to take advantage of more than a thousand federal benefits that only heterosexual married couples now enjoy.

    "It's really a respect issue," Lorber said. "Vermonters abhor discrimination and are ready to move in this direction."

    Connecticut's civil union law is very similar to the law put in place in Vermont in 2000, according to Carisa Cunningham, the director of public affairs for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance against Defamation in Boston.

    GLAAD, along with eight same-sex Connecticut couples (at least one of the couples had been joined in a Vermont civil union in 2001), filed a lawsuit against the state in August 2004, eight months before state lawmakers there passed a law legalizing same-sex civil unions.

    Cunningham said that development did not change the organization's lawsuit; in fact she believes it may have strengthened it. Last week, the Connecticut Supreme Court handed down its ruling legalizing same-sex marriage and the state became the third in the country where gay and lesbian couples can marry.

    "Vermont has been a real pioneer when it comes to the rights of same-sex couples," Cunningham said. "I think Vermont may now be ready to take that additional step."

    Beth Robinson, a Vermont attorney who argued the court case leading to the civil union legislation, said that while several other states have moved forward toward gay marriage, Vermont could become the first state that legislates it, as opposed to following a ruling from a court on the issue.

    She said there are currently no lawsuits in Vermont seeking gay marriage.

    "We want to take a legislative approach," she said. "Lawmakers have the responsibility to uphold the Constitution just as courts do."

    The final fate of a gay marriage bill may rest with the next governor. Democrat candidate for governor Gaye Symington and independent Anthony Pollina both said this week they would sign a bill legalizing gay marriage if they are elected (Symington was also one of the sponsors of the Vermont Commission on Family Recognition and Protection, the body that said lawmakers should look at the differences between gay marriage and civil unions).

    But incumbent Republican Gov. James Douglas, who took office two years after civil unions were signed into law, opposes gay marriage, according to his campaign. Dennise Casey, his campaign manager, said Douglas does not issue veto threats of bills.

    She said Douglas believes that "Vermont has achieved equality under the law" with the civil unions law.

    "Opening this divisive debate again is unnecessary and would distract from the importance of rallying Vermonters together to pass the governor's comprehensive economic growth plan and fight back against the national economic crisis," Casey said.

    Contact Daniel Barlow at daniel.barlow@rutlandherald.com.
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