Monday, December 24, 2007

Gay Marriage Panel Hears From Supporters

December 20, 2007

By DANIEL BARLOW Vermont Press Bureau

MONTPELIER — A packed room of eager gay marriage supporters came out to testify Tuesday night as a Vermont Legislature-backed commission considering expanding marriage rights held its first public hearing in the state capital.

Members of the Vermont Commission on Family Recognition and Protection heard only statements of support for moving past civil unions to same-sex marriage during the two-hour hearing at Montpelier's Statehouse.

It was a startling switch from the legislative hearings on civil unions in the same building seven years ago that attracted hundreds of divided Vermonters who passionately argued both for and against a legal recognition of same-sex couples.

"Civil unions were a valuable first step," said Elaine Parker of Plainfield. "But separate but equal did not work as a compromise in the civil rights movement and it doesn't work here."

Tuesday's session — the sixth hearing the 11-member panel has held across the state this year on marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples — followed in the steps of previous meetings, at which few or no opponents of gay marriage spoke out.

This was also the first meeting in Montpelier since the commission's organizational session in August — at which the leading groups in Vermont that oppose same-sex marriage vowed not to participate in the hearings.

Michael Vinton, a member of the gay marriage commission, said that opponents often say that same-sex marriage would undercut traditional heterosexual marriages.

But of the 8,516 civil unions performed here since they became legal in 2001, only 161 have had their unions dissolved, he said, a rate likely far lower than the percentage of divorces during the same period.

"A lot of people tend to think gays and lesbians are not normal," Vinton joked. "Well, as far as marriage goes maybe they are right."

Beth Diamond, a justice of the peace from Middlebury, said she was excited recently to perform her first civil union — and then she had to chide herself for being naïve enough to think it would be any different than performing a traditional marriage ceremony.

"It wasn't any different," she said. "I had two people before me who loved each other very much … and I was lucky enough to have the honor to be officiating at their ceremony."

Being the first public hearing on gay marriage in Montpelier, Tuesday's session attracted some well-known names.

Rev. Thomas Ely, the bishop of Episcopal Diocese in Burlington, talked about the disagreement within his church over same-sex rights, adding that "although we are not of one mind on this," he personally supports same-sex marriage.

Robert Appel, the executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, said that reports of harassment or bias against gay and lesbians in Vermont amounts to less than 5 percent of the complaints he receives. He sees this as evidence that Vermont is ready for gay marriage.

"Civil unions have not weakened our communities," he said. "If anything, they have enhanced them."

Allen Gilbert, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, said there is some hesitation to move forward on gay marriage due to conflicting laws with the federal government and other states. The state should ignore that argument, he said.

"I have little doubt that if Vermont were an independent nation … that we would grant gay people equal rights," Gilbert said.

Nancy Schulz of Montpelier raised the possibility that gay and lesbian couples with civil unions are not being treated the same as their straight counterparts by the state of Vermont.

She and her partner recently wrongfully were taxed by the state of Vermont on their health insurance payments after she was added to her partner's policy, she said. This was apparently due to a software error that did not note they were joined in a civil union, she said, and it may have happened to other same-sex couples too.

She said Vermont officials have since fixed the problem.

"It is disappointing that the very institution that passed the civil unions law does not abide by it," Schulz said.

A representative of the Vermont Legislative Council said she was unaware of that potential problem and would look into it.

Meg Davis of Plainfield told the commission she was appreciative of the support given to the same-sex rights effort by heterosexual Vermonters — many of whom have gay friends or family members and have come to the public hearings to support gay rights.

"I want to thank all the straight people for coming out and supporting us," she said. "We really appreciate it."

The commission is charged with issuing a report to the Vermont Legislature in April 2008. Future public hearings include Jan. 12 in Bennington, Feb. 2 in Rutland and Feb. 11 in Williston. For more information, visit www.leg.state.vt.us/ WorkGroups/FamilyCommission/.

Contact Daniel Barlow at daniel.barlow@rutlandherald.com.

3 comments:

John Hosty-Grinnell said...

I hope everyone caught the part where the reported instances of GLBT hate crime was significantly lower since the introduction of equality advancing civil unions. Indeed, Vermont is ready to again help lead our nation in the advancement of liberty by becoming another state that recognizes marriage equality.

"But of the 8,516 civil unions performed here since they became legal in 2001, only 161 have had their unions dissolved, he said, a rate likely far lower than the percentage of divorces during the same period."

Looks to me like GLBT people have MORE respect for marriage than their heterosexual counterparts that claim we will ruin the institution.

Jane Know said...

JHG, wow. That is interesting. I wonder what the stats are thus far in other countries were SSM has passed.

Paul Jamieson said...

Nice - a page right out of KNOW THY NEIGHBOR'S PLAYBOOK - ENJOY!!!

Anti-gay marriage group to mount "education" campaign

January 8, 2008

MONTPELIER, Vt.—Gay marriage opponents who believe a state panel studying the issue has its mind made up went on the offensive Tuesday, announcing the formation of a new group they said will educate Vermonters about the benefits of man-woman marriage.

The Vermont Marriage Advisory Council will hold forums and drum up interest through a Web site in hopes of enlightening people about the pluses of traditional marriage, especially those relating to children, whose stake in the controversy has been overlooked to date, according to spokesman Stephen Cable, of Rutland.

Unlike the state-appointed Vermont Commission on Family Recognition and Protection, which is currently holding hearings on whether Vermont should grant marriage rights to same-sex couples, the Council doesn't pretend to be neutral, Cable said.

Its efforts will be "purely educational," said Cable, founder of the organization Vermont Renewal, who opposed Vermont's first-in-the-nation civil unions law in 2000.

"In the last seven years, since civil unions (began), what we've discovered is that there's a tremendous amount of new information about traditional man and woman marriage and the social goods that it provides.

"Marriage is so important an institution to society that any slight change in the law concerning marriage can have a profound impact on the social goods that it provides," said Cable.

The 11-member state panel is traveling around the state to gather input from Vermonters about whether the state should take the next step in recognizing same-sex relationships. It plans to report to the Legislature in April, although it's unlikely lawmakers will take it up this year.

The Commission isn't out to push one side or the other in the debate, chairman Thomas Little said Tuesday.

"It misunderstands the mission or the charge of the commission, which is not, in my view, to make an up-or-down, yes-or-no recommendation on same-sex marriage, but to tell in a report what we found in testimony around the state and in our legal research, to let legislators and other elected officials use that data to make their decisions about the ultimate question," he said.

Cable, who announced the new group at a Statehouse news conference, was joined by Council members Jeff Stephenson, a 25-year-old Chittenden police officer, and Shoreham nurse Meg Barnes, 67.

"We're very much opposed to changing the definition of marriage, because it is a very solid institution when properly understood," Barnes said.

According to Cable, the impetus for the group's formation came at an Oct. 29 meeting of the state panel in which gay marriage opponent Monte Stewart got a cool reception from panel members.

At one point in that meeting, Little reminded the members they were there to listen, not to debate Stewart.

"Unlike the Commission, we are not stating that we are unbiased and don't already have an opinion," said Cable. "What we're saying is that we want to educate Vermonters about information that has come about since civil unions that we think Vermonters have not looked at or discussed, and that is very clear the Vermont Commission doesn't want to discuss, based on their previous actions," Cable said.

Little said it was wrong to conclude that the state panel favors gay marriage, based solely on that exchange.

Beth Robinson, chairwoman of pro-gay marriage Vermont Freedom to Marry, said she was puzzled and disappointed by the formation of the new group.

"The Commission has provided them and anyone who wants to speak the opportunity to be part of the dialogue with fellow Vermonters. Instead of joining in a good process that's already in place, they're creating their own process where they can control everything," Robinson said.

The Marriage Advisory Council's first "Marriage Matters" forum will be held Jan. 19 at the University of Vermont, where Stewart and Family Research Council fellow Patrick Fagan will be featured speakers.