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2000-04-27

Vermont Civil Union Bill Becomes Law

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Vermont’s governor signed landmark legislation yesterday making the state the first in the country to grant the full benefits of marriage to same-sex couples. [includes rush transcript]

Under the Vermont law, gay and lesbian couples will be able to enter into a legal institution intended to be the parallel of marriage. They will be able to go to any town clerk for a civil union license, which may then be "certified" by a justice of the peace or a willing clergy member.

If the union is to be dissolved, the matter will be handled by Vermont’s Family Court just as divorces are. It will be called a dissolution.

The civil union law, which will go into effect on July 1, will have no impact on federal law relating to marriage. But it is expected to have a profound effect on many laws in the state including adoption, inheritance and health care.

Gay advocate groups also hope Vermont’s moves will have far-reaching ramifications for growing national debate about the rights of same-sex couples.

Guests:

  • Bill Lippert, the only openly gay legislator in Vermont’s House of Representatives.
  • Rev. Craig Bensen, Vice President of Take It To the People, a grassroots organization based in Vermont that says it advocates for traditional marriage. The group was a key group fighting the legislation on same-sex unions.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Vermont Governor Howard Dean has signed Vermont’s landmark civil unions bill into law. He did it quietly with no fanfare yesterday. The law, the first of its kind for any state, will allow same-sex couples to form civil unions beginning July 1. That will entitle them to all of the rights, privileges, benefits and responsibilities of civil marriage.

The legislature wrote a law that is separate and distinct from the marriage statutes. Lawmakers said that was in keeping with the State Supreme Court’s ruling that gay and lesbian couples were being unconstitutionally denied marriage benefits. Dean signed the bill privately in his State House office yesterday, surrounded only by about a dozen staff members. Uncharacteristic of a bill of any significance, the governor did not invite advocates of the bill, its legislative authors or the media to witness and record the signing.

We’re joined right now by Bill Lippert, the only openly gay legislator in Vermont’s House of Representatives, who spearheaded this legislation. Welcome to Democracy Now!

BILL LIPPERT:

Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, it’s good to have you with us. Congratulations. And can you tell us how you felt yesterday when the state legislature finally signed the civil unions bill into law?

BILL LIPPERT:

It was a very exciting moment to realize that our work to create a bill that grants the rights, privileges and benefits of marriage to gay and lesbian couples was no longer a possibility, but is now a reality, and it’s thrilling to have worked with such a fine group of legislators and to have Governor Dean sign it into law yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN:

Can you tell us how it all started?

BILL LIPPERT:

Well, actually, let me just say that this really was initially an effort by the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, and two plaintiff attorneys went to court in Vermont on behalf of three couples — three gay and lesbian couples – who went to the town clerks and asked to have marriage licenses issued and were denied. That became a court case that went all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court.

AMY GOODMAN:

You were a part of one of those couples, is that right?

BILL LIPPERT:

No, I was not. No. And that’s why I just want to be clear that this really was spearheaded by the Freedom to Marry Task Force and the plaintiffs. My role as the only openly gay legislator really came into play, as the court ruled in December that gay and lesbian couples were being denied these privileges and said the legislature should craft the solution. I’m the vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and in late December, after the court ruled, started to play a key role.

AMY GOODMAN:

Were you surprised by the State Supreme Court judges’ ruling?

BILL LIPPERT:

I think many of us were both surprised and pleased. There had been a hope that they would rule that gay marriage was the law of the land and that our marriage statutes were unconstitutional. They did not do that, but they ruled that gay couples were being denied the rights and privileges of the marriage laws and said that the legislature should craft a legal means to grant these privileges, either by amending the marriage statutes or by creating a parallel structure. It was clearly the will of the legislature to create a parallel structure, which we have done and we have named “civil union.”

AMY GOODMAN:

And can you explain what civil union does?

BILL LIPPERT:

A civil union license will be available to gay and lesbian couples in Vermont beginning on July 1. You will go to the town clerk, and then it will be certified, as a marriage license would be solemnized, by a justice of the peace or a judge. A civil union will grant to gay and lesbian couples every benefit that is in Vermont statutes that relates to marriage.

Our bill amends every Vermont statute. It is incredibly comprehensive, so that inheritance rights, rights to make emergency medical decisions, tax benefits and privileges, property transfer tax, everything from the most significant benefit to — there’s some that relate to fishing licenses, and there are some other minor benefits, but all of those benefits will come to gay and lesbian couples who enter into a civil union.

And as significantly, those who enter into civil union will be required to go to family court to dissolve a civil union, in the same way that a couple who had been granted marriage would go to the family court to go through a divorce proceeding. So there are responsibilities that come with this civil union law, including alimony, child support, etc.

AMY GOODMAN:

Bill Lippert, the only openly gay legislator in Vermont’s House of Representatives. Reverend Craig Bensen is also on the line with us, vice president of Take It to the People, a grassroots group based in Vermont that says it advocates for traditional marriage. The group was a key group fighting the legislation on same-sex unions. What are your thoughts today, Reverend Bensen?

REV. CRAIG BENSEN:

We’re looking ahead to see what we can do come November, since the legislature seemed not open to hearing what the people had to say on this issue. We did have a round of town meetings, straw polls and ballot items that covered more than ten percent of the voters in the state, and they came in three-to-one against same-sex marriage and three-to-two against any form of domestic partnership. So we feel like the people have been shut out of the process, at this point, from the court leaving them out, to the legislature leaving them out, to the governor not listening, and we’re left with the opportunity in November to elect some individuals who are willing to listen.

AMY GOODMAN:

Now, Randall Terry, who founded Operation Rescue, was in Vermont for awhile and vowed that very point, that you take out some of the legislators who voted this in, and he said, “We’ll be here ’til November,” but he picked up stakes right after the vote, and he headed out of Vermont.

REV. CRAIG BENSEN:

Yep.

AMY GOODMAN:

What happened?

REV. CRAIG BENSEN:

Well, we live in Vermont, so we’re willing to work for change through the process and to commit ourselves to do that. Mr. Terry, I believe, was here for other reasons, and a long-term investment in Vermont was not part of his plan.

AMY GOODMAN:

Why do you say that the Vermont legislature did not represent the will of the people, and if you feel it didn’t, why did they do this?

REV. CRAIG BENSEN:

Well, the reason given on both the House and Senate floor for individuals who came right out and said, “Look, I know that the people in my district are overwhelmingly opposed to this, but this is a matter of principle or rights. Therefore, I’m going to vote my conscience.” That was the catchphrase.

Our response to that is, so when do we get a chance to vote our conscience? We asked the Senate to begin the constitutional amendment process to put one man, one woman marriage into the Vermont Constitution and to clearly delineate that the assignment of benefits for any arrangement was a prerogative of the legislature, not the judiciary. The Senate denied us that opportunity, so we feel shut out on both sides.

AMY GOODMAN:

Bill Lippert, you’re in the state legislature. What about those statistics or numbers that Reverend Craig Bensen just laid out about the overwhelming number of people of Vermont being against same-sex union?

BILL LIPPERT:

First, I need to emphasize that this was indeed a compromise. The bill that many people wanted to see happen was to amend the marriage statutes and to enact gay marriage. The legislators of Vermont listened to the people of Vermont and did not enact gay marriage. They created a parallel legal structure called civil union. Our opponents at the outset said they were opposed to gay marriage, but our opponents never were willing to compromise anywhere along the way.

In fact, those polls were orchestrated by opponents in towns across the state that were most likely to give them the results that they wanted. The polls did not include towns and cities in the state where there is indeed quite a bit of support. My own town, in fact, on another poll voted two-to-one in favor, but somehow it wasn’t included as an example in the polling that was done by our opponents, so I put very little credence in those polls.

AMY GOODMAN:

Reverend Craig Bensen, why are you against same-sex union, these couples who have lived together for so long, and some of whom have children, having the rights, for example, to visit their partner in the hospital when they say, you know, only family members can come in, or inheritance rights, etc.?

REV. CRAIG BENSEN:

Well, I’ll have to pick which question you asked there. We never came out in opposition to any particular set of benefits. What we were saying was we need to have a comprehensive discussion about the benefits and how they might be assigned and perhaps phased in.

And, in fact, Mr. Lippert is incorrect in saying that same-sex marriage without the word marriage, which is what the civil union bill is, is a compromise. The compromise that we pushed for and that was introduced into the House, or attempted to be before Mr. Lippert’s committee, was the reciprocal beneficiaries concept, which takes the question of sexual practice out of the assignment of benefits and leaves it as purely a question of who has, out of fairness, a need for certain benefits that are inherent in a couple-type relationship or partnership. This is the compromise that was worked out in Hawaii. The judiciary committee didn’t want to hear it. They took one or two pieces out of it and tagged it on, but it was quite obvious from the start that they were going to come as close to gay marriage as they could and that the real question wasn’t benefits, it was status and political advancement.

AMY GOODMAN:

Bill Lippert, what was it like in the state legislature over the last month? You have a number of people who originally said they were not going to vote for it or didn’t know, and then, through conversation and also citing you, said they were going to change their mind. What were these conversations like with other state legislators? Did you know them all?

BILL LIPPERT:

Many of them I’ve gotten to know over the last seven years that I’ve served in the legislature, and I think that my impact was in part putting a face on the image of gay and lesbian people. I have contended from the beginning that when people get to know us on a one-to-one basis, they understand that we are not the threat that Reverend Bensen and others would like us to seem.

In fact, we have — we are contributing members of our community. We are assets to our community, and I have had the opportunity to hold that out. It’s very difficult to be hearing the types of testimony. In fact, Reverend Bensen testified before our committee, talked about the twelve-step program he’s developed to help gay and lesbian people change their sexual practices, as he says, and demeans our wholeness as human beings and the nature and significance of our relationships by only focusing on what he and others have described as “unnatural sexual acts.” So I take exception to his characterization of not being listened to. He was brought in to testify along with others. It happens to be that the majority of the legislators were not persuaded by the testimony.

AMY GOODMAN:

Why do you think Vermont is the first nation in the country — the first state in the country to do this?

BILL LIPPERT:

I think, in part, because we have a history of tolerance. We have a history of openness and live and let live. And I also think that because we are a small state where neighbors do get to know each other more than in larger communities. I’ve been part of my community for over twenty years. I have good relationships with my neighbors, with people in the community. They get to see and know who we are as gay and lesbian couples and gay and lesbian people, and they recognize that our families deserve the same type of legal support and that those who oppose us having those supports often are doing so based on religious or moral views, which not everyone shares. They certainly have the right to have them, but they do not have the right to impose it as the will of the majority on Vermont.

AMY GOODMAN:

And finally, Reverend Craig Bensen, has the discussion over the last months and getting to know and meet people like Bill Lippert changed your views at all?

REV. CRAIG BENSEN:

Not at all. I’ve been working with individuals who have histories of homosexual involvement for years, and I hear and see things differently than Mr. Lippert does, because we operate from two different world views.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, on that note, I want to thank you very much for being with us, both. Reverend Craig Bensen, vice president of Take It to the People in Vermont, and Bill Lippert, the only openly gay legislator in Vermont’s House of Representatives. As of July 1st, same-sex couples can go to their local governments and get a license for being united as a couple.

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