Commission stops short of recommending gay marriage

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(Host) A legislative commission has stopped short of recommending that Vermont legalize gay marriage.

But the commission said it heard overwhelming testimony from those who felt civil unions for same-sex couples were not equal to marriage.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) When the legislature authorized civil unions eight years ago, the idea was to grant the rights and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples.

The charge for the commission was to find out if that promise held true.

Are there legal and practical challenges faced by those in civil unions that are not experienced by heterosexual married couples?

Chairman Tom Little said the answer the commission heard over and over again is, yes, there is a difference. Those who testified say civil unions are a form of second-class marriage.

(Little) “We’re asking people to take what these Vermonters – these gay and lesbian couples and their friends and families – what they said seriously, and to take a serious look at the deficiencies that they believe they have in their legal and social and family lives.”

(Dillon) The 11-member commission held eight public hearings around the state. Commission members said there was a remarkable difference this time compared to eight years ago when the Vermont Legislature debated civil unions.

Johanna Donovan is a state representative from Burlington.

(Donovan) “The meeting in St. Albans one dark, rainy night in the fall was the most memorable for me, because the people who spoke that night were afraid to speak in 2000 when the meeting on civil unions happened in St. Albans because of the bitterness and anger…. And I thought to myself that we’ve come a long way.”

(Dillon) The commission released findings and recommendations, but did not recommend that the Legislature support same-sex marriage.

Little said that was not the panel’s job.

(Little) “I think that, speaking for myself, that the report has more credibility in focusing on the data, on the evidence that we were gathering out there, as opposed to making the next step to saying therefore the Legislature ought to do this.

(Dillon) Beth Robinson of the Freedom to Marry Task Force said the commission’s work lays the groundwork for action next year in the Statehouse.

(Robinson) “The Legislature is going to be going home in a couple of weeks. We’re not planning any kind of big push this year. But we hope that this provides a good foundation to move forward in 2009.”

(Dillon) Opponents of gay marriage will be prepared as well. Craig Bensen said Vermont should hold a referendum on the issue. Bensen said he was not surprised that the commission did not make a recommendation.

(Bensen) “They came up with basically a platform for next year or some succeeding legislative session’s bill to advance civil union’s becoming same-sex marriage. They’ve done the research for the committee, they’ve presented it out there, and at the same time suggested they were not taking sides.”

(Dillon) The commission did make a number of recommendations for additional study. For example, it wants to know how well Vermont’s civil union law works compared to Massachusetts gay marriage law.

The commission asked whether Massachusetts same-sex marriages are more accepted around the country than Vermont civil unions.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

AP Photo/Toby Talbot

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