The first baby step for the United States to catch up with much of the western world, regarding human rights, took place 14 years ago in Vermont. The heated debate included the three touchy topics of politics, sex, and religion.
A landmark civil rights bill in the State of Vermont was finally approved by that State’s House, on April 25, 2000. It was signed into law the next day, by then Governor Howard Dean. The creation, by law, of same-sex civil unions would go into effect in July of that year. With the passage of that law, Vermont became the first U.S. State to provide LGBT couples with a status that had some resemblance to straight marriage.
The civil union law created a status that attempted to carefully balance respect for “traditional” heterosexual marriage, and the need of committed lesbian and gay couples for legal protections and recognition. The religious hot-button word “marriage” was purposely left out of the name of the law.
The law went beyond the bare-bones status of “domestic partnership” arrangements that did very little to provide any legal protections to couples. The extension of legal benefits for Vermonters included inheritance rights, the ability to have medical power of attorney for each of the partners in a relationship, and a few deductions of State level taxes. LGBT Vermonter’s legal status was not to be valid anyplace else, since neither the federal government nor any other State had anything comparable.
The Vermont Supreme Court earlier ruled the denial of the benefits of marriage to gay and lesbian couples was unconstitutional. The justices said the Vermont legislature had to either amend the marriage laws or create another legal means to recognize such partnerships.
The couples lost their trial court decisions in December of that year. The lower court ruled that Vermont’s laws limiting marriage to different-sex couples were valid because they served the “public interest” by promoting the “link between procreation and child rearing.”
In 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court took up “Baker v. Vermont” on appeal. The Court ruled that the Vermont Constitution does entitle same-sex couples the same benefits and protections as provided to married opposite-sex couples. However, the justices failed to award the plaintiffs the relief they had requested. The State Court, instead, ordered the legislative branch to present a solution to the problem. The judgement required action within a “reasonable period” of time.
Vermont’s prohibition against same-sex marriage had arbitrarily and unfairly denied legal protections, in equal measure, to all citizens. The voices of traditionalists, then as now, were loud and contrarian. The LGBT community was then as now, steadfast in their pursuit of civil rights.
Legislators knew that any vote in favor of some sort of equal marriage or domestic partnership extention would be dangerous. Many legislators were threatened with violence. Those who dared to be on the right side of history expected to lose their seats during the next election cycle if they voted in favor of a marriage-similar solution.
The Vermont House Judiciary Committee began work on the question in February of 2000. While three members wanted to extend marriage to same-sex partners, eleven advocated a civil rights package. There was talk of instituting a “Civil Accord” status to lesbians and gays. The name was changed because some legislators thought it would bring ridicule because it reminded them of a Honda automobile.
In March, the state House of Representatives voted in favor of creating civil unions with the same legal rights and obligations as marriage. In the state Senate, the bill was slightly modified. Then, on April 19th the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 19 to 11. On April 25th, the state House passed the amended version with a 79 to 68 vote. The Civil Unions legislation was signed into law on April 26, 2000 by the Governor.
The Blue Jay of Happiness also remembers that in September of 2009, Vermont was the forth State to legalize marriage equality. It was the first State to institute same-sex marriage by legislation and not by court rulings.