Sears says gay marriage bill vote unlikely before 2009

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(Host) Supporters of a new gay marriage bill say the time has come for Vermont to move beyond civil unions and become the nation’s second state allowing same sex couples to marry.

The head of the Senate Judiciary committee thinks it’s important to begin this conversation throughout the state but Bennington senator Dick Sears says it’s unlikely that the measure will come up for a vote before 2009.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) Under the legislation, same sex couples would be allowed to get married in a civil ceremony sanctioned by the state. The bill would not require any churches to offer gay marriage to their parishioners.

It’s been 7 years since the landmark Vermont Supreme Court ruling known as the Baker decision – a ruling that led to the passage of the nation’s first Civil Union law. Since then a number of states have enacted similar legislation and Massachusetts has passed a gay marriage law.

Windsor senator John Campbell is the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate. Campbell says the law is needed in Vermont because civil unions treat same sex couples as “second class citizens”:

(Campbell) “I think it’s time for Vermont now to look back at the law that really set everything in motion and say, ok we found out that there’s no major problems experienced with in this state. It didn’t cause any catastrophic change in the values of the Vermonters and therefore I think it’s time to afford equal rights to people of a same sex that wish to marry.'”

(Kinzel) Former Shelburne Rep. Tom Little was the chairman of the House Judiciary committee during the 2000 session when lawmakers passed the Civil Union law.

Little says adopting Civil Unions 7 years ago was the right step for Vermont to take at that time. Now he says it’s time to take another step.

(Little) “I think a lot has happened in that 7 years. Vermonters have learned that Civil Unions for gay and lesbian couples has not been a problem. It’s been a good thing for our communities, a good thing for families. This is a progressive and fair way of providing equality under the law and I think we’re ready for the next phase of that conversation in the Statehouse.”

(Kinzel) Rutland senator Kevin Mullin is a member of the Senate Judiciary committee. He says he needs to be convinced that Vermont needs a gay marriage law.

(Mullin) “I think I’d like to know why they feel it’s necessary to go that route. And again just keep an open mind. I’m not prejudging the outcome of the bill. But certainly we saw how divisive the issue of Civil Unions was for the state of Vermont and why we need to go down that path again to try to divide our citizenship up unless there’s a compelling reason to do so. I’m curious as to what the intent is.”

(Kinzel) Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears says it’s important to begin the discussion about gay marriage in Vermont but he thinks lawmakers should move very slowly on this issue. Sears was also the head of the committee in 2000 when the Civil Union law was adopted:

(Sears) “We were accused of rushing the bill when we did the Civil Unions in 2000. And it’s one of the things that I think is important – to have a discussion with Vermonters about it. You get out the idea and in discussions with the advocates for the bill that was their intention was not to have a bill pass or have a debate or have a vote this year or next, but rather to begin the discussion – that it’s a very real issue and what are Vermonters think about it.”

(Kinzel) The gay marriage bill has 10 sponsors in the Senate and more than 30 House members have signed on to a companion bill in their chamber.

For Vermont Public Radio I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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