Statewide gay marriage debate to begin again

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(Host) A statewide debate on gay marriage is about to begin again.

Top legislative leaders have appointed a new commission that will ask Vermonters’ opinions on whether same-sex couples should be given the right to marry.

VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports:

(Sneyd) The civil unions law was enacted seven years ago, making Vermont the first state to grant same-sex partners the same rights as married couples.

Legislative leaders say they think the law has been a good one. But they say it may need to change because – unlike civil unions – marriage is something all states recognize.

House Speaker Gaye Symington says she hopes a newly created commission gives people a chance to talk about the differences between civil unions and marriage.

(Symington) "I’ve grown to appreciate and really come to ask, is it time to change that separate legal status. And I’d like to draw more Vermonters into understanding what that means. What it means for Vermonters who are joined in civil union, what does it mean relative to what it would be if they were married."

(Sneyd) Symington and Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin held a news conference outside Burlington City Hall to announce the creation of what they’re calling the "Vermont Commission on Family Recognition and Protection."

They chose the location, they say, because city and town halls are where people go for marriage and civil union licenses.

Shumlin says he thinks it’s inevitable that civil unions will be replaced by marriage.

(Shumlin) "It’s not a question of yes or no. It’s a question of when. I think what this commission can do is begin that dialogue with Vermonters."

(Sneyd) Lawyer Tom Little of Shelburne was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that wrote the civil union law. And he’s been appointed chairman of the new commission.

He says he wants to explore whether it’s time to consolidate civil unions and marriages.

(Little) "For myself, the way I’m framing the question, the issue that we’re going to be studying, is more are there any good, sound reasons, grounded in the law or morality or in ethics that point to why we shouldn’t do this."

(Sneyd) One of the most prominent advocates of marriage rights for same-sex couples has been Middlebury lawyer Beth Robinson.

She says she thinks getting Vermonters involved in the issue is a good approach.

(Robinson) "This is going to give us an opportunity to actually find out how Vermonters think about this rather than buying into somebody’s conventional wisdom about how Vermonters feel about this."

(Sneyd) But not everyone thinks it’s a good idea to reopen what was a wrenching debate in 2000.

Governor Jim Douglas says he doesn’t believe there’s much difference between civil unions and marriage and the law should be left as it is.

(Douglas) "I don’t think it would be in the state’s best interest to reopen those wounds to have that controversial debate because we’ve extended full privileges, full legal rights and benefits to same-sex couples."

(Sneyd) It’s unlikely the Legislature will be having that debate soon. The commission has been asked to hold at least six public hearings and report back to lawmakers by the end of April 2008. Leaders say the earliest they’d consider a bill would be 2009.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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