Other states looking to follow Vermont's civil unions lead

MONTPELIER, Vt. - Since Vermont became the first state in the nation to grant gay and lesbian couples nearly all the rights and benefits of marriage, politicians from New Hampshire to California have been intrigued about how they can follow suit.

Many gay-rights advocates say Vermont will remain a pioneer on the issue for a while - until the public becomes more comfortable with the idea. Still, some lawmakers are already working on laws modeled after the one in Vermont, which broke new legal ground without wandering into the politically volatile thicket of marriage.

In the New York state Senate, Manhattan Democrat Tom Duane, who is gay, is drafting a bill that would be similar to Vermont's civil unions law, although details are still being worked out.

In Rhode Island, Democratic state Rep. Michael Pisaturo of Cranston is working on legislation that would go even further - expanding his state's marriage laws to include homosexual couples.

''I would not introduce anything but marriage,'' said Pisaturo, who is also gay. ''I don't necessarily see something like civil unions or domestic partnerships as a stepping stone to marriage.''

Vermont's law, which took effect July 1, gives gay and lesbian couples a parallel but separate legal option called civil unions.

The civil unions, which are not recognized by other states and confer no marriage benefits under federal law, nonetheless entitle same-sex couples to receive tax benefits and inheritance rights and to make medical decisions on behalf of a partner, for example.

Advocates also see opportunities in New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts and California for laws granting marriage benefits, either through marriage itself or through a compromise like Vermont's.

''I think the situation we're in is Vermont will be there and will have to have the courage of its convictions for a while and then, I think, it will fall into place in a number of spots,'' said Beatrice Dohrn, a lawyer for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which led the failed legal fight in Hawaii for gay marriage.

Thirty-two states have specifically outlawed gay marriage. Although most advocates say full inclusion in marriage laws is the only way for gay and lesbian couples to achieve equality, some see Vermont's civil unions statute as a good way to begin moving toward that goal.

''Using Vermont as a model, other legislatures wishing to enact equal benefits, equal status for gay and lesbian people will look at this,'' said David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights organization. ''There are several progressive legislatures around the country that would look to this.''

However, lawmakers like California Assemblywoman Carole Migden, a lesbian from San Francisco, find Vermont's compromise demeaning.

''The premise of civil union is still an insult, but nevertheless we're pleased that the state of Vermont recognizes the quality of lesbian and gay equality in a less-than-dignified way,'' said Migden, whose state last year outlawed gay marriage in a referendum. ''We're moving along. Each year we add to it. It's a step-by-step building-block process.''

Some gay rights advocates caution that experiences in Hawaii and Alaska, where courts said same-sex couples should be allowed to marry and then lawmakers and voters defied them, should temper any predictions that the idea of civil unions will spread quickly beyond Vermont.

''I think it's important to bear in mind that Vermont is a leader in not just civil unions, but in terms of hate crimes, second parent adoption and nondiscrimination issues for the lesbian and gay community,'' said Tim Sweeney, deputy executive director of New York state's Empire State Pride Agenda.

Of the 115 couples who have been joined in civil unions in Vermont through Monday, more than two-thirds have been from outside Vermont, even though the ceremonies aren't recognized in their home states. That alone will make a difference in other states, advocates say.

''The whole movement in Vermont has created a tremendous amount of education and discussion about lesbian and gay relationships and the kind of discrimination we face,'' Sweeney said. ''It's been an extremely positive discussion and very helpful to humanize lesbian and gay relationships and our families.''


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment