Senate Judiciary Committee approves same-sex marriage legislation

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(Host) The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill today that would legalize same-sex marriage.

The committee approved the legislation after voting down an amendment that called for an advisory statewide referendum on the issue.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Roll call) “Margaret, will you call the roll?”

“Senator Cummings?” “Yes.” “Senator Mullin?” “Yes.” “Senator Nitka?” “Yes.” “Senator Cambell?” “Yes.” “And Senator Sears?” “Yes.”

(Dillon) It was unanimous. The vote in the Judiciary Committee clears the way for a debate early next week in the Senate.

The committee’s lone Republican – Rutland Senator Kevin Mullin – first tried to delay action on the bill until after a proposed statewide referendum.

(Mullin) “I think it is a valid argument that was made when we spend close to 170 hours on the last major bill that came out of committee and only 15 hours on this, that in some respects this bill may be being rushed.”

(Dillon) Mullin proposed an amendment that called for the advisory referendum to be held on Town Meeting Day next year. He predicted Vermonters would support same-sex marriage.

(Mullin) “I believe that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Vermont would find much greater comfort knowing that their friends, their neighbors and their relatives have accepted this.”

(Dillon) Unlike California and some other states, Vermont does not make law by popular vote. A recent California referendum overturned same-sex marriage in that state.

Committee Chairman Dick Sears said that unlike California, elected officials here are in close touch with their constituents. Sears warned that an advisory referendum could lead to other statewide votes on issues such as gun rights.

(Sears) “So I see this as a slippery slope. Thirdly, I’m concerned about money. And the money that was spent in California is outrageous, by both sides. And that’s, I think if you’re going to have a referendum here, you’re just going to bring in a lot of outside interests.”  

(Dillon) In the end, Senator Mullin was the only one of the five to vote for the referendum amendment. Mullin then voted for the same sex marriage bill.

Windsor Senator John Campbell said the unanimous vote was important.

(Campbell) "That’s hard to get on a lot of bills but this bill being such an emotional one and one that’s highly charged, especially for Senator Mullin and his district. He’s received a lot of very vitriolic mail… What he did today was one of the most courageous acts I’ve seen in this Legislature since the time I’ve been here."

(Dillon) Mullin said his constituents appear divided on the issue. He said the potential political fall out was not a factor in his vote.

(Mullin) “I don’t think anybody can make a vote based on worrying about the next election. You just have to vote what you feel is right.”

(Dillon) Mullin said he remains convinced that civil unions for same-sex couples offer the same rights and privileges as marriage. But he says there are some benefits that only civil marriage can provide, such as certain health care benefits provided under federal law.

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

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