Vt. lawmakers push for gay marriage

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Legislative leaders in Vermont pledged last Thursday to push for passage of a gay-marriage bill before the session ends in May, saying allowing civil unions was a good start but it’s now time to end the “inequality” of existing laws.

“I do think that we’re in a different America and a different Vermont than we were nine years ago,” said state Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin.

Vermont endured a fractious fight over civil unions before becoming the first in the nation to approve of them in 2000. California, New Jersey and New Hampshire have followed suit, and Massachusetts and Connecticut now allow gay marriage.

Opponents say Vermont lawmakers should be addressing more pressing issues, starting with the economy. Gov. Jim Douglas — who wouldn’t say last week if he’d sign a same-sex-marriage bill — said the Legislature should be focusing on economic issues.

Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith, who lead the Democrat-controlled legislature, said that while their focus this year is the economic downturn, the Legislature can handle more than one issue at a time.

Vermont couples who are in civil unions are unfairly denied Social Security survivor benefits and other benefits accrued to married couples, according to Shumlin.

He favored civil unions over gay marriage in 2000, but now believes that Vermont should make it legal for gays and lesbians to wed.

“Justice too long delayed is justice denied,” said Shumlin (D-Windham).

A same-sex-marriage bill has already been introduced in the Senate, but a different version will be introduced after lawmakers return from the two-week Town Meeting Day break on March 16 and start a week of hearings on the topic before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

A draft of the bill posted on the Legislature’s Web site stated town clerks would be authorized to issue marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples starting Sept. 1, with each applicant specifying whether they want to be designated “bride,” “groom” or “spouse.” But it makes no mention of any rights that would be conferred by gay marriage that go beyond what people in civil unions now enjoy, other than marriage licenses.

According to Shumlin, marriage would give gay and lesbian couples Social Security benefits that people in civil unions don’t get. It also would give more rights to them in the event that one spouse had to make emergency health decisions for the other, and allow them to qualify as spouses in the eyes of health-insurance companies, he said.