Senate Judiciary Committee wraps up gay marriage testimony; vote expected tomorrow
By DANIEL BARLOW Vermont Press Bureau | March 19,2009
MONTPELIER – The Senate Judiciary Committee concluded testimony Thursday afternoon on a same-sex marriage bill, but key lawmakers were mum on how they might vote on Friday.
Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the committee, said he is likely to vote yes on the bill, but said that everything depends on what the final version looks like.
At least two amendments are expected to be offered Friday to change the bill.
“I’ve inclined to support the bill,” Sears said. “But I never make a final decision until I see the final wording.”
The final testimony capped an up-and-down week of committee hearings on expanding marriage to same-sex couples that began with a boisterous opposition rally and ended with a mostly-empty room as passions died down.
James Neiley, a 17-year-old student at Champlain Valley Union High School, told committee members Thursday of his own difficulty coming out as a gay teenager and how the lack of marriage rights played into his own fears that he was less of a person than his straight counterparts.
He said he was teased and ridiculed by classmates for being gay – discrimination that he said is fueled by the fact that gays and lesbians have less legal rights than heterosexuals.
“I want, in 50 years, for same-sex marriage to be as obvious as a woman’s right to vote and interracial marriage,” Neiley said.
Gabby Benham, a student at Richford High School, said her family relationships – her parents are two women – is exactly similar to the relationships of her friends and neighbors who have opposite-gender parents. The sole difference is that her moms can’t call what they have a marriage.
“No one knows what a civil union is,” Benham said. “We need more. We need the word marriage.”
The consensus from experts in varying fields is that the children of gay and lesbian parents can be just as successful as the children of straight parents, testified Jacqueline Weinstock, an associate professor of human development and family studies at the University of Vermont.
She said children need loving and authoritative parents and good economic conditions to prosper – and gender or sexual orientation doesn’t play roles in that equation.
“It is in the best interest of children whose parents are in same-sex relationships to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples,” Weinstock told lawmakers.
Same-sex marriage opponents disagreed that there is consensus on that issue. Steve Cable of Rutland, a spokesperson for the Vermont Marriage Advisory Council, said that studies have shown that the ideal environment for children is a loving home with both of their biological parents.
He said he believes that many gay and lesbian Vermonters are good parents, but that changing the definition of marriage to allow for more inclusion would damage an already diminishing institution.
“A genderless marriage law would say that Vermont believes that men and women are completely interchangeable,” Cable said. “It would say that Vermont no longer believes a child has a right to know their biological mother and father.”