Bill Would Require Employers To Offer Health Coverage To Same-Sex Spouses

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The Vermont House took another step toward protecting the rights of same-sex couples on Friday, voting overwhelmingly to require out-of-state companies that offer health coverage to the spouses of opposite-sex married couples to provide the same benefits to same-sex couples.

As the country continues the debate over how to legally recognize gay and lesbian couples, activists say the measure would go a long way toward extending their rights in Vermont.

"This is simply one more piece to clarify what rights should be on the books," said Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, who rose on the House floor Friday to point out that the vote would coincide with the thirteenth anniversary of the House’s first vote advancing the civil unions bill. Vermont legalized gay marriage in 2009.

"We spent the entire day debating the bill," Lippert recalled. "Then, on a roll call vote, we moved it forward and I think many of us can take great satisfaction and pride in that historic vote when we look at the movement forward that’s been taking place in many parts of the country as a result."

Lippert and other supporters say the overwhelming vote in favor of the new health coverage bill shows how far the debate has advanced since 2000. The bill passed 139-to-5 after less than 15 minutes of debate.

The question, though, is whether the state could defend such a measure if challenged under the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

"We did not have any testimony from any company before our body," said Rep. Doug Gage, R-Rutland City, who voted against the bill as a member of the House Health and Welfare Committee. Gage is among a handful of lawmakers who worry the bill could invite a federal lawsuit that the state can’t afford.

"We cannot take state mandates and supersede federal mandates," Gage said.

But the bill’s backers dismiss those concerns, and House Speaker Shap Smith is encouraged by the bill’s support across party lines. "People are recognizing that the debate about whether we’ll have civil marriage equity and equality is over and now it’s a question of making sure that people who operate in Vermont respect those laws," Smith said, sitting in his office and reflecting on how the nature of the conversation surrounding the legal rights of same-sex couples has shifted. "I thought it was great to have such a strong vote."

Smith said the bill includes the qualifying language that should make sure the state law does not interfere with federal law, and he thinks that language should take care of any challenges from companies that don’t want to comply with the new requirements.

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