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Vermont Activists Put Brakes on 'Civil Unions' Legislation

LAWRENCE MORAHAN

A bill that squeaked through the Vermont Legislature 76-69 granting same-sex couples rights and benefits hitherto enjoyed only by married couples currently is stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where senators for the first time are calculating the political fallout they could face if they approve it.

(CNSNews.com) - A bill that squeaked through the Vermont Legislature 76-69 granting same-sex couples rights and benefits hitherto enjoyed only by married couples currently is stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where senators for the first time are calculating the political fallout they could face if they approve it.

Angry Vermonters made known their disapproval of a “civil unions” bill during a series of town hall meetings across the state three weeks ago. All but four of 30 towns in Vermont voted against domestic partnership legislation and 50 towns voted against same sex marriages.

“The assumption was made when it passed the House that it was clear sailing from there for the pro-gay side. But the net effect of the House vote, even though we lost, was to make a lot of people angry and wake them up,” Craig Bensen, vice president of “Take It to the People,” a Vermont grassroots organization that supports traditional marriage, told CNSNews.com.

“The Senate seems to have taken notice that there is a lot of concern out there. We’re trusting that that may translate into some moderation, some reasonableness, some willingness to get compromise solutions,” he added.

The bill passed by the House provides for unions that amount to marriage in everything but name. Same-sex couples could apply for a license from town clerks and have their civil union “certified” by a justice of the peace or a member of the clergy, and would be entitled to privileges available to married couples in such areas as inheritance, medical decisions, insurance and taxes.

If the Senate approves the basic package passed by the House, the legislation will go to state Governor Howard Dean, a Democrat, who said he will sign it into law. If the Judiciary Committee proposes something different and the Senate passes that, it will have to go back to the House for a re-vote.

The Senate Judiciary Committee currently is hearing testimony before the six-member panel proposes legislation, possibly next week, on civil unions which then will be debated by the full Senate.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard W. Sears, a Democrat from Bennington, has indicated in statements he is getting cold feet about moving forward too quickly. Addressing his Democratic caucus, Sears said he might have to worry about being reelected. Seeking political cover, Sears is holding a public information rally Saturday in his home district in Bennington, which is also the county seat, together with Sen. Gerald P. Morrissey, a Republican, to find a way to moderate the process.

There are other signs around the state that politicians are feeling the heat from angry voters. The chair of the Democratic committee in Rutland, the third largest city in the state, resigned because of disagreements with the leadership who chose to vote for civil unions.

“Every elected official except for the judiciary is up for election in November. I think they are beginning to take a realistic look at the potential political damage that could happen if they continue to ignore the will of the people,” Michael Johnston of Kerusso Ministries, a Christian network that monitors legislative attacks on traditional marriage, told CNSNews.com.

The Senate Judiciary Committee also is hearing testimony on a constitutional amendment, which is seen as the only way to take the gun away from the head of the Legislature that the state Supreme Court is now holding. The issue of civil unions was forced on the Legislature after the court ruled in December that homosexual couples were unconstitutionally denied the benefits of marriage.

One constitutional amendment gaining support among Vermonters is a two-part proposal that links a definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman with a paragraph that says nothing in the Constitution requires the giving of benefits of marriage to any unit other than a man and a woman.

“It doesn’t prohibit giving benefits, it just says it doesn’t require it,” Bensen said. “That has the effect of leaving the designation of benefits and any statutory changes entirely to the Legislature, and is meant to send a strong signal to the court to stay out of both the benefits business and the legislating business. That probably has the best chance of getting out to the Senate floor for an open vote.”

“Getting two-thirds is a tough one, but if it makes it to a floor vote, anybody who votes against a constitutional amendment is immediately tagged as opposing traditional marriage and opposing letting the people have a say on the definition of marriage. There would be some political weight on that,” Bensen said.

The governor also is feeling a lot of pressure with phone calls, letters and emails continuing to come in.

Some observers attributed the apparent turnaround in attitudes to grassroots activism by conservatives and people speaking up for traditional values.

“If indeed the tide is turning, I wouldn’t read that to say that these politicians all of a sudden have developed a new moral compass. I read that as saying these politicians have all of a sudden developed a thermometer that measures political heat,” said Johnston, a former homosexual who helped organize a referendum in Alaska against same-sex marriage that resulted in the passing of an amendment in favor of traditional marriage.

Alan E. Sears, president of the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based legal group that monitors infringements on religious freedom and traditional family values, said opponents of homosexual rights were not allowing themselves to be cowed into silence by false accusations that they are homophobic or bigoted.

“If everyone is silent it’s obviously going to win by default,” Sears told CNSNews.com. “This is not a matter of ‘my opinion versus your opinion.’ If the basis of your belief is Biblical truth—if you’re a Jewish person who reads Scripture or a Christian who reads Scripture—you’ve got a sincere basis to stand on. It’s not based on bigotry or hate; it’s based on your faith that is literally thousands of years old. People should have the courage to say so.”

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Morahan, Lawrence. “Vermont Activists Put Brakes on ‘Civil Unions’ Legislation.” CNSNews.com (March 30, 2000).

Reprinted with permission of CNSNews.com.

AUTHOR

Lawrence Morahan is a staff writer with CNS News.

Copyright © 2000 CNSNews.com

 

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