December 20, 1999 09:18pm
Vt. Court Backs Gay-Couple Benefits
by: CHRISTOPHER GRAFF
(MONTPELIER, VT) -— Creating what could be a springboard for the legalization of gay marriage, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled Monday that homosexual couples are entitled to the same benefits and protections as wedded couples of the opposite sex.
The high court stopped short of giving homosexuals the right to marry, leaving it instead to the Legislature to decide whether to legalize same-sex marriages or create some kind of "domestic partnership" status to ensure gay couples' rights.
Gay organizations hailed the decision as the most far-reaching ruling of its kind in the United States and said it represents their best chance of winning the right to marriage for the first time anywhere in this country.
"This is a glorious day," said Evan Wolfson of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. "Vermont's highest court has ordered an end to unequal treatment of lesbian and gay families."
Until recently, Hawaii had been gay couples' best hope. Hawaii's Supreme Court started the debate nationally when it ruled in 1993 that restrictions against gay marriage violated the state constitution. But last year, Hawaii approved a constitutional amendment against gay marriage.
"We hold that the state is constitutionally required to extend to same-sex couples the common benefits and protections that flow from marriage under Vermont law," Vermont's high court said. "Whether this ultimately takes the form of inclusion within the marriage laws themselves or a parallel `domestic partnership' system or some equivalent statutory alternative rests with the Legislature."
The five-member court was unanimous in saying that gay couples should get the same rights and benefits as heterosexual couples. Those benefits would include access to a spouse's medical, life and disability insurance, hospital visitation and other medical decision-making privileges, spousal support, certain rights of inheritance and homestead protections.
While agreeing with her colleagues on the question of extending benefits, Justice Denise Johnson wrote a separate opinion saying the court had not gone far enough. She said the court recognizes that gays and lesbians are entitled to certain rights and "yet declines to give them any relief other than an exhortation to the Legislature to deal with the problem." Johnson said she would require town clerks to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples.
Vermont Chief Justice Jeffrey Amestoy said the Vermont ruling provides greater recognition of and protection for same-sex relationships than any other state's high court except Hawaii's.
Both gay rights advocates and opponents of homosexual marriage went even further, arguing that the Vermont ruling was the strongest in support of gay rights by a state appeals court in the United States.
"It really represents a slap in the face for marriage between a man and a woman," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, which opposes gay marriage.
Mary Bonauto, a lawyer for the three gay couples who sued the state in 1997 for right to be given marriage licenses, called the decision "a legal and cultural milestone."
"We celebrated our 27th anniversary together in October. We look forward to the time when we can finally make it official," said Holly Puterbaugh and Lois Farnham, one of the couples.
Democratic Gov. Howard Dean, who had refused to take a position on same-sex marriages until the court ruled, predicted the Legislature would pass a domestic partnership law. Same-sex marriage "it makes me uncomfortable, the same as anybody else," he said.
But Lt. Gov. Douglas Racine and the speaker of the Vermont House have said they favor same-sex marriages.
The justices said they would give the Legislature "a reasonable period of time" to act. They did not specify what that means.
The three couples at the center of the case — two lesbian couples and a male couple — sued after being denied marriage licenses by their town clerks. A Superior Court judge rejected their claims. The couples then appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments 13 months ago.
The couples argued that their inability to get married denied them more than 300 benefits at the state level and more than 1,000 at the federal level.
Hawaii's 1993 ruling set off pre-emptive legislation around the nation. Lawmakers feared that gay couples would fly to Hawaii to get married and that the 49 other states would then have to recognize those marriages.
At least 30 states banned gay marriages, and Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal recognition of homosexual marriage and allowed states to ignore same-sex unions licensed elsewhere.
Hawaii eventually drew up a constitutional amendment against gay marriage, and voters approved it 2-to-1 last year.