By JOHN FLOWERS
MONTPELIER — An overwhelming majority of Addison County’s legislative delegation on Tuesday helped override Gov. James Douglas’s veto of same-sex marriage legislation.
The successful override votes in both the House and Senate assured that Vermont will join Connecticut, Massachusetts and Iowa as the only states in the union to offer same-sex marriage. Vermont is the only state to enact gay marriage through legislative action, as opposed to court action.
Beth Robinson, an Addison County resident, Middlebury-based attorney and leader of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, was gratified by Tuesday’s vote.
“We have been at this for 15 years,” Robinson said during a telephone interview just a few hours after the House had voted 100-49, with one member absent, to override Douglas’s veto. “We always had the idea that if we talked to fellow Vermonters… about the reality of our lives, that we would get equal rights.”
The House needed at least two-thirds majority margin (of those present for voting) to successfully override Douglas’s veto, which he had announced on Monday.
Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes, was the lone Addison County lawmaker who voted to sustain Douglas’s veto. Clark was one of the few lawmakers to address his colleagues before the override vote, saying he was pleased with the respectful nature of the same-sex marriage debate.
“What I will remember is the respect accorded on both sides of this issue, on all sides of this issue,” Clark said in remarks to the House before the vote.
Voting in favor of the override were Reps. David Sharpe, D-Bristol; Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln; Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury; Steve Maier, D-Middlebury; Christopher Bray, D-New Haven; Will Stevens, I-Orwell; Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes; and Willem Jewett, D-Ripton.
House leaders needed every vote they could muster, as the bill (S.115) originally won passage last week by a 95-52 tally. Three Democrat representatives who had voted against the same-sex marriage legislation ended up voting for the override; another Democrat who had also voted ‘no’ on S.115 was ill and did not show up for Monday’s override referendum. Speaker Shap Smith, a Democrat from Morristown, also voted in favor of the override.
Robinson said she had prepared two sets of remarks to refer to following the override vote — one if the override passed, the other if it failed.
“I was not sure which one I would get to deliver” until the final roll call vote was counted, Robinson said.
There was no such suspense in the Senate, however, which had passed S.115 by a 26-4 tally earlier this month. The Senate voted 23-5 on Monday to override Douglas’s veto, with Sens. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge and Harold Giard, D-Bridport, voting with the majority.
Area lawmakers called Monday’s vote historic, and one that demonstrated the Legislature’s willingness to tangle with the executive branch on weighty social and economic issues.
“Today’s vote was to uphold the will of the legislative body,” Lanpher said. “The work of this body will be completed and the decision has been recorded. If, as a legislative body, we didn’t honor and respect our own work and respect our own voice — a voice that represents the people of Vermont — then why would we expect anyone to respect our decision?”
Jewett heard perhaps more testimony on same-sex marriage than any other Addison County lawmaker. Jewett is a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, which received S.115 from the Senate and ultimately released it for a vote by the full House.
“It was historic; (the roll call) was very emotional, as was the debate,” Jewett said.
Rep. Joseph Acinapura, R-Brandon, stood by his “no” vote on S.115, but promised to work on getting gays and lesbians more rights at the federal level.
“The legislation doesn’t really get into the inequality that might be out there,” he said. “I believe that marriage is between one man and one woman, but I have stated on the floor and to my gay friends that I will sit down and draft a letter to the federal delegation and ask what can be done about economic benefits for gays and lesbians at the federal level.”
Acinapura, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said he believes that Vermont’s civil union law provides gay and lesbian couples with the same rights as married heterosexual couples, but said the economic benefits could go further.
“I want to do things for them,” he said. “I can’t do anything regarding getting the respect of others, but maybe I can do things with the economic benefits.”
Douglas said after the vote that he was not shocked by the override, that he knew it was a very real possibility. In announcing his veto on Monday, Douglas had said he would not lobby for lawmakers to vote one way or the other, and that he expected others, like he, would vote their conscience.
Douglas, a Middlebury Republican, said through a press release that he believes Vermont is well-served by civil unions, which grant same-sex couples some of the same state rights and benefits afforded to married heterosexual couples. Vermont was the first state in the union to pass a civil union law in 2000.
“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 said. “But I believe that marriage should remain between a man and a woman.”
Douglas also noted that same-sex couples in Vermont will not realize full marriage equality on a national scale with the enactment of S.115.
“Regardless of whether the term marriage is applied, federal benefits will still be denied to same-sex couples in Vermont,” Douglas said. “And states that do not recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions will also deny state rights and responsibilities to same sex couples married in Vermont. This bill will not change that fact.”
Robinson and other supporters of same-sex marriage acknowledge that Vermont’s new law will not — at this point — give same-gender couples access to federal entitlements like Social Security survivor benefits. But Robinson said the passage of same-sex marriage laws in other states, coupled with legal action now taking place in federal court, could eventually turn the tide at the national level.
“It is just a matter of time before some of our sister states join us,” Robinson said, referring to same-sex marriage initiatives currently in the works in New Hampshire, Maine and New Jersey.
For now, the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force will focus on helping the state “heal the divide” between supporters and opponents of same-sex-marriage and assist the state in “moving forward” following the past few weeks of debate, according to Robinson. The group will also assist incumbent lawmakers who supported S.115 and who may find themselves taken to task during the next election, Robinson said.
“In the end, we are not done until we get through the 2010 elections making sure we stand with those who stood for us,” Robinson said.
Tuesday was a happy day for Naomi Winterfalcon and her partner, Madeleine Winterfalcon. The Monkton couple has been together for 24 years and is already joined in a civil union. They are now looking forward to get married, which they will be able to do beginning this September.
“She has asked me to marry her,” Naomi Winterfalcon said of her partner.
“I’m very happy about it.”
Winterfalcon said the couple moved to Vermont from Maine several years ago to take advantage of civil unions. They also believed that Vermont was closer to passing same-sex marriage than Maine.
“We are glad the Legislature took the step it did,” Winterfalcon said.
She hopes other states will follow suit and that the federal government will extend benefits to same-sex couples. She called it a “civil rights” issue and does not believe it is a religious issue.
“The older we get, the more important it is to have protection when facing issues of disability, illness and death,” Winterfalcon said. “It is more crucial to have legal backing.”
The Brandon Reporter’s Lee J. Kahrs contributed to this story.