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Vermont House takes up same-sex marriage debate

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MONTPELIER — State and local lawmakers are preparing for a showdown with Gov. James Douglas on same-sex marriage legislation that passed the Senate last week on a 26-4 vote, then eased through the House Judiciary Committee on an 8-2 vote on Tuesday.

The House was expected to vote, and easily pass, the “Marriage Equality Bill” this Thursday, April 2, or Friday, April 3. But as the Addison Independent went to press on Wednesday, House leaders were still surveying the political landscape to determine whether they could muster at least 100 votes necessary to override Gov. James Douglas’s promised veto.

“Unfortunately, the governor has decided that on an important issue of civil rights like this, he does not believe it should be by majority vote; it should be by super-majority vote,” House Speaker Shap Smith, a Democrat, told about 40 residents gathered at the Ilsley Library in Middlebury on Monday night for a legislative update to the Addison County Democratic Committee. “There is no doubt about the fact it will pass the House. Now what we are doing is trying to get 100 votes… ”

Smith told the group he believes 95 House members are currently safe bets to vote for an override on the marriage bill.

Smith is optimistic the House will get the 100 votes it needs. He added it seemed improbable, just last year, that the Legislature could muster enough support to pass gay marriage legislation.

“If we had said to you last year that we’re going to pass marriage equality, 26-4 in the Senate and with almost 100 votes in the House, you probably would have told me that I was out of my mind,” Smith said. “We have come incredibly far and we are actually going to get to the point where we are all able to share the same rights with regard to marriage.”

He stressed the House will not drop the issue if the marriage bill fails to become law this year.

“If we have to keep knocking this year, next year, the year after, it’s going to happen,” Smith said. “It’s just a matter of when it’s going to happen.”

Smith bristled at Douglas’s assertion that the Legislature’s current focus on the Marriage Equality Bill was diverting attention away from other weighty issues, primarily planning for a fiscal year 2010 state budget that faces a multi-million-dollar revenue shortfall.

“The governor talks about the fact that this is a ‘distraction,’ well I’m happy to say that New Hampshire is going to deal with this ‘distraction,’ my good friends in Maine are going to be working on it, and some of my colleagues in New York have told me they are probably going to bring it up this year,” Smith said. “It is time; it’s not a distraction.”

Senate President Pro Tem. Peter Shumlin, also a Democrat and a possible candidate for governor, agreed with Smith and was candid in his criticism of Douglas.

“For those who think (same-sex marriage legislation) is a distraction, I ask you this question: Was it a distraction to give women the right to vote? Was it a distraction to remove the obstacles for equal citizenship that allow us to have an African-American as president of the United States? And is it a distraction to share the simple joy of marriage … as a simple statement that two people, who love each other, want to commit to spending the rest of their lives together?” Shumlin said. “I say Jim Douglas is not only on the wrong side of history, he is on the wrong side of the values that we hold as Vermonters … ”

Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, is a senior member of the House Judiciary, which for roughly two weeks has been taking testimony on the Marriage Equality Bill. He was among the majority of his committee to vote in favor of passing the bill along to the House floor.

“If you come to this testimony with an open mind and an open heart, there’s no contest,” Jewett said of the speeches delivered in favor of the bill. “I say that with all due respect for the people for whom this is uncomfortable or worse … ”

Indeed, the Marriage Equality Bill drew its share of opponents — and supporters — at Monday’s legislative breakfast in Bristol.

“I think marriage should be between a man and a woman,” Charlie Cousino of New Haven said, while echoing other Vermonters’ suggestion that the same-sex marriage referendum be put out for a statewide, non-binding referendum.

“I really believe our legislators should listen to us,” Cousino said. “I believe it should be put out for a vote; that’s the American way.”

“We believe the legal definition of ‘marriage’ should remain between one man and one woman,” Ferrisburgh resident Bernie Perron said, speaking on behalf of himself and his wife, Dorothy.

“Families were meant to have one father and one mother,” he added. “There’s plenty of data out there to demonstrate this is the best environment for children. Why there are people who believe that the gay and lesbian environment should be codified as marriage is beyond us.”

Gov. Douglas spoke against the gay marriage bill last week when he announced his intended veto.

“I believe our civil union law serves Vermont well and I would support congressional action to extend those benefits at the federal level to states that recognize same-sex unions,” Douglas, a Middlebury Republican, announced in a March 25 statement about his planned veto. “But like President Obama and other leaders on both sides of the aisle, I believe that marriage should remain between a man and woman.”

Douglas has drawn some praise for his stance among marriage traditionalists, but has drawn far more criticism — as evidenced by rallies and protests throughout the state — among those who believe the issue is about civil rights. If the bill became law, Vermont would join Massachusetts and Connecticut as the three states in the union to offer same-sex marriage.

Middlebury held a rally this past Sunday that drew as many as 300 people on the town green on a rainy day in support of gay marriage, and a recent question in the long-standing Doyle Poll revealed, though unscientific, that Vermonters favored gay marriage by a 55 percent to 38 percent split, with 7 percent undecided. The poll, taken by Sen. William Doyle, a Republican, represents more than 13,000 voters on Town Meeting Day from 120 towns.

That support gels with what several supporters said at Monday’s legislative breakfast.

Madeleine and Naomi Winterfalcon of Monkton said they believe same-sex marriage is a matter of civil rights.

“My partner of 24 years and I raised my daughter to be a fine young person, who has a son of her own right now, so we are grandparents,” Madeleine Winterfalcon said. “Our family has always had a lot of love in it and a lot of caring, and I have seen a lot of people hurt by being told their relationships are ‘not as good as.’”

Naomi Winterfalcon said that while Vermont’s civil unions offer same-gender couples some of the protections of marriage, they do not afford the same recognition and benefits as marriage. She noted, for example, her partner’s past employer did not recognize the couple’s civil union and ultimately denied Naomi Winterfalcon coverage under the company’s medical plan.

“Discrimination is real, and the word, ‘marriage’ has weight in a way that ‘civil union’ doesn’t,” Winterfalcon said. “There are lot of consequences to the words and what they mean.”

Addison County resident and Middlebury-based attorney Beth Robinson is chairwoman of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, an organization that is trying to rally support behind the Marriage Equality Bill.

The task force’s strategy is to hold rallies, engage in letter-writing campaigns and encourage same-sex couples and their supporters to testify at legislative hearings.

“We are trying to stick with what has been successful for us,” said Robinson, one of the lead attorneys in the Vermont Supreme Court case that led to the passage of Vermont’s civil union law almost a decade ago. “We want to reach out and tell our story. In the end, the legislators can sort out the legal issues.”

There are several legal issues to sort out on the state and federal fronts.

The federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages, which in turn means that those joined in such unions don’t have access to some of the same federal benefits and rights accorded to heterosexual couples. Robinson cited Social Security survivor benefits, immigration law protections, and provisions of the medical leave act as among the marriage-related amenities currently denied to same-sex couples.

“We are not looking for anything more or less than what our heterosexual neighbors (are receiving),” Robinson said.

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