By Patti Reid
Monday, March 12, 2001
Bills to advance the rights of gays and lesbians, including offering legal legitimacy to same-sex relationships, have encountered furious opposition nationwide. Vermont, ground zero in culture wars, is divided over restricting its own landmark law.
MONTPELIER, Vt. (WOMENSENEWS)--In Vermont, the only state where gay and lesbian couples have won the legal right to civil unions, opponents are working diligently to roll back or limit gay rights. Nationwide, the outlook is not promising for maintaining or expanding gay marriage or civil union legislation.
Legislation to legalize civil unions or gay marriage is pending in California, Washington, New York, and Rhode Island. However, according to The Associated Press, 35 states have passed anti-gay marriage laws and similar legislation is pending in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Missouri and Wyoming.
Many of these fall under so-called Defense of Marriage Acts, such as the Texas legislation that would outlaw same-sex civil unions, including those performed in another state. In November, voters in Nebraska and Nevada advanced constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriages.
There appears to be little chance that the landmark Vermont law will be repealed this year, but opponents, led by Republican Representative Nancy Sheltra, are pushing to send a repeal measure to the House floor. After a bitter and divisive election campaign, which was marked by a profusion of signs throughout the state proclaiming "Take Back Vermont," more than a dozen lawmakers who voted for civil unions were defeated. Republicans took control of the Vermont House of Representatives for the first time in 14 years.
Even if the House voted to repeal the law, it would be unlikely to pass the Senate, where Democrats retain a slender margin. In addition, Democratic Gov. Howard Dean, who signed the civil unions bill into law, narrowly won re-election and would be likely to veto any repeal measure.
Much of the action in the current Vermont legislative session has centered in the House Judiciary Committee, where each Tuesday has been devoted to discussion of possible changes to the civil unions law. A bill that would ban same-sex marriages, by appending it to an existing law forbidding incest, is pending before the committee.
After the committee voted 7-3 last month to send the bill to the House, proponents failed to explain the full legal ramifications of the law and it was sent back to the committee for revision. It is scheduled to go before the House again on March 15.
"This is not healing Vermont," committee member Rep. William Lippert, a Democrat, who is openly gay, told the Associated Press. "This is clearly a political and divisive effort to keep the volatile issue of same-sex marriage stirred up rather than bringing Vermonters together to heal after the emotional debates over civil unions last year."
Some lawmakers, including Judiciary Chair Peg Flory, a Republican, say they would like to see the civil unions law modified to include other types of family units, such as two sisters who live together. The civil unions law was created in response to a state Supreme Court ruling that declared it unconstitutional to deny gay and lesbian couples the benefits of marriage.
Flory and others on both sides of the aisle say that the legislature may be able to amend the law, but that repeal would merely create another battle in the courts, which might end in homosexual couples winning further rights.
Other anti-gay bills pending before the Vermont legislature would make it illegal to "encourage, promote or sanction homosexual or bisexual conduct" in schools; prohibit Vermont from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in another state; and require that civil unions only be performed for Vermont residents. One proposed bill would allow justices of the peace to refuse to perform civil union ceremonies.
At the federal level, the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act stipulates that marriage is a union of one man and one woman. In February, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., introduced legislation in Congress to repeal a portion of that bill and to require the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages on a state-by-state basis. The Frank bill is not expected to pass.
Elsewhere in the country, efforts to expand the rights of gays and lesbians have not fared well in the current legislative season.
In recent action, the Colorado Senate first adopted by a voice vote a bill to expand inheritance rights of gay couples, then killed it 17-18 when a roll call vote was requested. In New Mexico, an attempt to broaden the state's Human Rights Act to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation was killed in the House and an attempt to legalize civil unions in Hawaii was defeated.
In Washington, two legislators from Seattle introduced a bill to allow civil unions for gays and lesbians, despite the state's Defense of Marriage Act. Republicans hold a majority in the House, and the legislation is not expected to pass. A bill duplicating Vermont's civil unions law was introduced in the California Assembly this month, but faces tough opposition, on the heels of last year's action by California voters who overwhelmingly passed Proposition 22, that affirms heterosexual-only marriage.
Internationally, in the past year, gay marriages have been making progress in Europe. The Netherlands Parliament overwhelmingly approved marriages between homosexuals in a law to take effect in April. The law eliminates all references to gender in marriage and adoption laws. To marry in the Netherlands, at least one person must be a resident or Dutch citizen.
Other similar initiatives are being considered in Germany, Switzerland and Finland. In the Western Hemisphere, legal challenges by homosexual couples are being mounted in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. On St. Valentine's Day, more than 100 gay couples participated in a symbolic, though not legally sanctioned, wedding ceremony in Mexico City in which they signed certificates advocating civil unions. Despite the strong opposition of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico, gay rights made some inroads, with two advocates elected to the Mexico City Council in September.
Patti Reid is a free-lance writer and former Associated Press correspondent in New England.
A related article in Women's Enews, "Vermont Election Is Ground Zero in Cultural Wars":
Vermont Legislature pending legislation Web page:
News coverage of Vermont legislature and civil unions by the Barre and Montpelier, Vermont Times-Argus:
LAMBDA Legal Defense and Education Fund:
ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project:
Information on civil unions:
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