Great thoughts: marriage rights and civil unions

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(Host) One of the more recent ideas to shape our community is that of Civil Union. But commentator David Moats says that Chief Justice Jeffery Amestoy’s ruling was based on traditional Vermont notions of equality.

(Moats) “Our common humanity.” That is the phrase that stands out in the historic ruling written by Chief Justice Jeffrey Amestoy in the case of Baker v. the State of Vermont. Amestoy wrote that extending the principle of equality to gay and lesbian couples who wanted to marry “is simply, when all is said and done, a recognition of our common humanity.” The Baker case was about the common humanity of homosexual and heterosexual Vermonters, and it touched off the debate that led to the passage of Vermont’s civil unions law two years ago.

The idea of human equality has not been an obvious one. At the time of the American Revolution it was an idea so radical its survival was uncertain. Even back then, equality meant equality for some, and it took centuries of struggle to extend the meaning of equality to African-Americans and women. But in Vermont the tradition of egalitarianism can be traced all the way back to the attitudes of the first settlers. They were fiercely protective of their own rights, and when they wrote their first constitution in 1777, they had the wisdom to recognize that equality isn’t equality if some are treated unequally. So in Article One of the constitution they wrote that no adult “ought to be beholden by law, to serve any person, as a servant, slave or apprentice.” Thus, Vermont became the first state to outlaw slavery. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison got his start working for a newspaper in Bennington. The family of Rowland Robinson in Ferrisburgh was among those who helped runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad.

None of this was without controversy. It’s been a struggle each step of the way to widen the meaning of “our common humanity.” Slavery advocates had all sorts of theories explaining why blacks weren’t fully human. Women didn’t have the right to vote until the 20th century because men didn’t think women were up to it.

In establishing civil unions, Vermont was enlarging its understanding of “our common humanity” by recognizing that the passionate, committed family bonds that exist between men and women sometimes exist between people of the same sex.

One of the reasons Vermont is viewed as a liberal state is that it had no tradition of significant institutionalized racism to defend during the civil rights movement. So as the South and friends of the South engaged in political reactionism in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Vermont was holding to its founding principle, that all men are created equal. It was a radical notion in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it seemed radical when the Vermont Supreme Court extended it to gay and lesbian couples who wanted to marry.

But the radical is also the traditional. Amestoy’s words followed in a tradition that went all the way back, a tradition of egalitarianism traceable to the rambunctious founders of the state and all those over the centuries who have understood that equality is not equality unless it is equality for all.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Learn more about the “Great Thoughts of Vermont” series.

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