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Brea Bennett at Twistys

March 30, 2000 11:22pm
Vermont "Civil Union" Update
Source: News Wire

The controversy over Vermont's move to establish "civil unions" for same-gender couples with most of the benefits of marriage is now going on in three different arenas: in the Senate Judiciary Committee now considering the bill and two constitutional amendments proposed in response to it; in the gubernatorial campaign; and in the media. The civil unions bill, developed in response to a December state Supreme Court ruling, passed the state House on March 16, and Governor Howard Dean (D) has promised to sign it.

The Bill: Rough Go in the Senate
After its passage by the House, the civil unions bill H.847 moved to the six-member state Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Richard Sears, Junior (D-Bennington). His plan is for the committee to hear testimony through April 5 and then spend a week or so going through the bill line-by-line, with floor debate to begin the week of April 17; the legislature hopes to end its session before April 30. In addition to testimony at the Statehouse, there will be a public hearing via interactive television in two sessions on April 3, and at least two local forums, one in Bennington on April 1 and another on April 4. When first looking over the bill, the Committee had a large number of questions, and it could end up making a number of amendments.

Although there was a perception that Senate passage would come relatively easily, most of the "defense of marriage" forces have shifted to opposing civil unions now that the "gay marriage" possibility is out of the way. Two Committee members have already indicated they are likely to vote against it, John Bloomer (R-Rutland) and Vincent Illuzzi (R-Essex-Orleans). Illuzzi had actually introduced his own domestic partners measure at the beginning of the session, but when he found he could not build any support for it in three months, he abandoned it. Now he is working for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman; to authorize the legislature to decide the legal benefits and responsibilities of marriage; and to state there is no constitutional requirement for either the legislature or the courts to extend those benefits "to any grouping of people other than one man and one woman." Another proposed amendment by Senator Julius Canns (R-Cale! do! nia) would state, "That marriage is a special label for a partnership between a man and a woman" but would not impact the civil unions bill.

Committee hearings opened March 21 before a throng of people opposing civil unions, and Sears declared that, "The committee will make decisions word-by-word on this bill." The previous week, the Committee had voted unanimously against expanding marriage to include same-gender couples. Testimony on March 22 and 23 included five of the six plaintiffs in the "Baker" case and their attorneys Beth Robinson and Susan Murray. Other witnesses have included law professors, representatives of the state attorney general's office, and Representative Thomas Little, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee that drafted the civil unions bill.

On March 29, the Committee heard testimony from a half-dozen religious leaders, and three leading Senators also met privately with Vermont's top Catholic, Bishop Kenneth Angell, who has vigorously opposed the bill. All Angell would say about the private meeting afterwards was that the lawmakers should pray for enlightenment. He told the Committee, "Do not let the court or anybody else push you around. You have no duty, moral or constitutional, to weaken the institution of marriage. If the court thinks otherwise, then let the people overrule the court. This is the United States of America. We are not ruled by kings, whether on a throne or in the courtroom." He urged passage of a constitutional amendment to restore to the legislature "the rightful authority to regulate marriage, and to make your own best judgment about other questions."

Speaking to witness Glen Bayley, pastor of Bennington's Missionary Alliance Church, Sears expressed concern about some of the rhetoric which has been used, including his personal resentment at being told he would go to hell for supporting the civil unions bill. Bayley demurred that those who had sent Sears that message weren't actually telling him to go to hell, but encouraging him "to go a different direction" and affirmed his personal belief that all will someday be judged. Sears responded dryly, "I have confidence that this vote is not going to make the difference."

But some clergy supported civil unions, including Unitarian minister Jane Dwinell, who called the bill "the first step toward full equality.'

The Campaign: Dean's Stand Attacked
Republican gubernatorial hopeful Ruth Dwyer, beaten by Dean two years ago, kicked off her campaign on March 13 calling civil unions "the most radical social legislation in the country" and asserting her opinions that "civil rights have already been granted to just about every group out there" and that "marriage is an institution, a union between a man and a woman." She was already clear that civil unions would be a central issue of her campaign, even though the bill had not been primarily a partisan issue in the legislature.

On March 27, she told a Republican gathering that, "There's way too much power at the top," and, "The fact of the matter is they're not listening to the people." She said, "The civil union bill would not have passed the House without deal-making. That's how Howard Dean leads. You're not getting votes of conscience from all your legislators. The governor is very willing to threaten people, bribe people ... anything he can do to get a vote. He's done it many times, plenty of people will admit it. If you don't elect people who have the integrity to respect the legislators enough not to threaten and bribe, you're always going to have issues passing that House and Senate that never should have passed." She claimed to base her allegations on her own past experience in the legislature, and when Dean demanded an apology, she said only, "I am sorry if the truth hurts." In a later statement, Dwyer called on Dean to "show real leadership on this issue by using the full weigh! t ! of his office to encourage the legislators to slow down and pursue a more moderate course."

Although Dean was certainly seen politicking throughout the two days of House debate on the bill, he insists that he always saw the vote as a matter of conscience and never told anyone how to choose. He called Dwyer's statements "blow-torch politics" that he said had no place in Vermont. He even compared her approach to Randall Terry, the confrontational Operation Rescue leader who moved his home and studio from upstate New York to Montpelier to oppose civil unions and those who support them. Dean went on to issue a statement responding at least as much to Terry and groups lobbying against civil unions as to Dwyer, that, "I am deeply concerned that the debate is deteriorating as part of a calculated effort to use a campaign of hate, misinformation and fear to divide us. I call on these extremists to end their tactics and allow Vermonters to debate this emotional issue on its merits -- as one community -- rather than complicate the discussion with divisive, hateful rhe! to! ric."

Dwyer's opponent for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, attorney William Meub, aimed much of his criticism at the state attorney general's office for losing the "Baker" case before the Vermont Supreme Court. He said at the same March 27 meeting, "There wasn't a single argument made about the history of what marriage is all about. There wasn't a single argument made that the reasons those rights were there was to protect wives. The legislature routinely gives legislation that favors one group over another group. They do it all the time, it's permissible. All you have to do is have a good reason for it." While Meub may be judging the attorney general's staff performance before the court harshly, there have been indications that some of them were personally sympathetic to the cause of the plaintiff couples in "Baker."

The Republican primary vote will be in September.

Civil unions can be expected to influence votes for legislators as well. At the March 27 meeting where Dwyer and Meub appeared, state Representative John Edwards (R-Swanton) was taken to task by some and warned by at least one that his vote in favor of the bill could lose him votes in November. At least one candidate for the legislature, Republican Ronald Boucher of Wallingford, announced his candidacy specifically in response to his own representative having voted in support of civil unions.

The Media: Mass Appeals
Many religious right groups have been seeking to participate in Vermont's debate. On March 28, Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Focus on the Family called on the 3 - 5 million people in its daily radio listening audience to "flood the Vermont legislature with phone calls" and hold them "accountable" for their "attack on marriage." Focus accuses the lawmakers of hiding "gay marriage" under a different name, and warns that gay and lesbian couples from all over the country will go to register their unions in Vermont and then return to their home states to bring lawsuits for recognition. "We cannot allow Vermont to decide the fate of marriage for the rest of this country," Focus vice president Tom Minnery insisted.

Literally thousands of mass-produced postcards calling for a constitutional amendment to "defend God's law and the American family" from the "nightmare of same-sex marriage" have been burying the offices of House Speaker Michael Obuchowski and Lieutenant Governor Douglas Racine. The Pennsylvania-based American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property claims to have printed a million of them and to have mailed out 150,000 for people to send to Vermont legislators, with a request for a donation to the group as well.

One "group" - which currently has only one identified member - called Who Would Have Thought slammed Governor Dean on March 23 in ads in two newspapers, charging that he supported the "homosexual agenda" of legalizing pedophilia, forcing acceptance of "homosexual scoutmasters," and using federal defense funds for AIDS care, sex reassignment surgery and fertility treatments. The individual admitted to the Associated Press that he didn't actually believe Dean supported such things, but he does believe there is a "homosexual agenda" that Dean is advancing by means of the civil unions bill, and he wants people to know about it. He considers his campaign to be education in support of traditional values.

Lobbying efforts around same-gender marriage and civil unions have outspent any such campaigns in Vermont by far, with more than $100,000 paid out all told just in January and February - and the activity became much more intense in March leading up to the House vote. Randall Terry's organization to oppose civil unions is called Loyal Opposition, and it spent an estimated $15,000 on lobbying in January and February. Two Vermont groups opposing same-gender marriages and civil unions, the long-standing Take It to the People and the newer Vermonters for Traditional Marriage together spent $15,000 on lobbying in January and February. The Vermont Freedom to Marry Action Committee reported expenditures of $40,801 on lobbying in support of equal marriage rights and civil unions.

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