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 email@example.com.