Civil unions no longer radical

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(Host) Commentator Madeleine Kunin reflects on national politics, civil unions and the passage of time.

(Kunin) When the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled recently that denying the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry was unconstitutional, it caused the earth to tremor under the feet of politicians everywhere. Where would they stand on this issue, which no one had expected and few welcomed? Suddenly, with one four to three vote of the Massachusetts court, Vermont’ s decision on civil unions looked moderate.

The Vermont Supreme Court based its decision on our constitution and did not demand that the legislature enact gay marriage. It based its conclusion on the “common benefits” clause of the Vermont constitution and stated that gay and lesbian couples should have the same benefits as married couples.

The Legislature provided these benefits without the word “marriage.” That made all the difference.

Divisive as this issue was in Vermont, in just a short time, civil unions has become a more acceptable compromise to the question: should gay and lesbian couples have the same rights and privileges as heterosexual couples?

It’s not a satisfactory compromise for everyone. Most gay and lesbian couples – and some others – would prefer marriage to civil unions. Vermonters who lobbied with the Freedom to Marry group had to swallow hard to accept a compromise that substituted civil unions for marriage, but that compromise resulted in an historic civil right for gay and lesbian couples.

There is a substantial sector of the population that is opposed to civil unions of any kind. Some want a constitutional amendment to declare that marriage means a union between a man and a woman. There is a movement to add such a constituional amendment, but if I were to place a bet on it now, I would guess that it would not succeed.

Even President Bush, faithful to the religious right, has not yet endorsed a constitutional amendment. And Vice President Cheney, father of an openly lesbian daughter, has said, “Let the states decide.”

Most of the candidates for the democratic nomination for President have come down on the side that Howard Dean takes. Let the states decide. It will be interesting to see how conservative Republicans, known for states’ rights, will struggle with a federal take-over on gay and lesbian marriage.

The growing acceptability of civil unions is an indication of how quickly society has moved on an issue that not long ago was unthinkable. It is our daughters, sons, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends who helped to bring us here.

This is Madeleine May Kunin.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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