MONTPELIER, Vt. — The northeastern state of Vermont has moved a step closer to becoming one of the few U.S. states where same-sex marriage is legal.
The Vermont Senate gave its final stamp of approval to a bill that would allow gay couples to marry in the state. Lawmakers passed the measure on Tuesday in a voice vote with no debate.
Now the issue moves to the state House, where a committee has scheduled a week’s worth of testimony on the bill.
“It provides ... gay and lesbian couples the same rights that I have as a married heterosexual,” said Sen. John Campbell, vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and chief sponsor of the bill.
The measure would replace Vermont’s first-in-the-nation civil-unions law with one that allows marriage of same-sex partners beginning Sept. 1.
Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, announced during a press conference March 25 that he would veto the bill if it reaches his desk.
“Because I believe that by removing any uncertainty from my decision we can move more quickly beyond this debate, I am announcing I intend to veto this legislation when it reaches my desk,” Douglas said.
The legislation would need a two-thirds vote in each house to override the governor’s veto.
If approved, Vermont would join northeastern neighbors Massachusetts and Connecticut as the only U.S. states that allow gays and lesbians to marry.
The committee approval last Friday ended an intense week highlighted by a public hearing last Wednesday night in which more than 500 people swarmed the Statehouse to speak for and against allowing same-sex marriages.
Civil unions, which confer some rights similar to marriage, would still be recognized but no longer granted after Sept. 1.
Campbell said marriage is an improvement over civil unions both substantively and as a matter of wording.
On the first score, he said, marriage is more widely legally recognized than civil unions. If a couple from Vermont got into an accident in Kansas, a spouse likely would have a stronger claim to hospital visitation rights if they were married than if they were in a civil union, he said.
Semantically, Campbell argued that if there were no difference, opponents of same-sex marriage would not be so vehement that the term marriage should apply only to heterosexual unions. “Children should be able to say to their friends that their parents are married, and not have to explain what a civil union is,” he added.
The bill would exempt members of the clergy from performing same-sex marriages if their faiths forbid such unions, and would bar lawsuits prompted by such refusals.
The exemption would not extend to justices of the peace and other public officials who perform civil marriages but who might object to officiating at same-sex unions. Those people are agents of the government and are barred by law from discriminating based on sexual orientation, Campbell said.
Vermont in 2000 became the first state in the country to pass a civil-unions law, which grants many of the rights and responsibilities of marriage to same-sex couples. But gay-marriage advocates have argued since then that the law does not go far enough. California, New Jersey and New Hampshire also permit civil unions.
The committee’s action last week drew praise from a leader of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, one of the leading organizations supporting gay marriage in the state, and condemnation from a leader of the opposing Marriage Advisory Council.
“The committee was attentive throughout the week. They heard a wide range of witnesses on a wide range of issues, and I think, ultimately, they did the right thing,” said Beth Robinson, a Middlebury lawyer and chairperson of the Freedom to Marry Task Force.
Stephen Cable, president of the group Vermont Renewal, an organization that opposes same-sex marriage, said the civil-unions law and the possible passage of the gay-marriage bill shows the state “no longer seeks to promote that each child have a mother and a father. And I think that’s shameful and very sad.”