Civil unions – progress or passe?

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(Host) It’s been almost four years since the Vermont Legislature passed the civil unions bill. Commentator Cheryl Hanna reflects on Vermont’s role in the debate over gay marriage.

(Hanna) I was in San Francisco when the civil union bill passed in Vermont. That day, and for weeks afterwards, whenever I got out of my car with my Green Mountain license plates, people would stop me on the street, shake my hand, and tell me how lucky I was to be from the most progressive place in the country. It wasn’t the full equality of marriage, but it was a major step for same sex couples. Vermont was so cutting edge.

What a difference just a few years make. First, the Massachusetts Judicial Supreme Court ruled that only marriage will satisfy the commonwealth’s own constitution, making our Court’s decision in Baker v. State a model of judicial restraint. Then hundreds of couples flocked to San Francisco and Seattle and the small upstate town of New Paltz, New York when those cities’ mayors issued marriage licenses before the courts could stop them.

Now, Vermont’s become a little like Niagara Falls for same sex couples. Once all the rage for lovers seeking legal legitimacy, it now seems a bit, well, passe. Even George Bush and Dick Cheney, and thousands of other people, who, just four years ago, were quick to criticize civil unions as radically undermining family values, are now some among the first to say that while they would like a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, civil unions are okay. In fact, many recent opinion polls find that the majority of Americans, even though against gay marriage, now favor civil unions.

Civil unions have become the moderate compromise, the cautious approach, the way for politicians torn over this issue to save face. Some would even say that civil unions – once the symbol of a brave step forward – have now become the coward’s way
out. I share the frustration among many gay rights activists that separate can never be equal. But I’ve gotta say that I think the way in which the nation has embraced civil unions in just a few short years is a sign of progress, not to be overlooked.

Americans are more accepting of gay and lesbian relationships than I ever would have expected at this point in history, and Vermont is due partial thanks for this. It was in Vermont that we introduced a vocabulary to talk about this issue, and our experience has shown that granting our citizens more rights has only made our state stronger.

I’m optimistic. I don’t think Bush’s constitutional amendment will pass, and I believe there will come a day, in the not so distant future, when the Supreme Court will ultimately grant marriage rights for everyone.

On that day, Vermonters will not need to be ashamed that we tried civil unions here first. It was a bigger step then than it seems now. The fact that civil unions are now the conservative fallback position, well, that’s something to be proud of.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.

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