Schools, Economy Outweigh Interest in Civil Unions
03/11/02 12:00AM By Steve Zind
(Host) Two years ago at town meeting, civil unions was a much talked about issue. This year, a referendum dealing with how homosexuality is discussed in schools barely received notice on town meeting day.
VPR's Steve Zind looks at how voter concern over civil unions and homosexuality may have waned.
(Zind) Before town meeting, Derby Representative Nancy Sheltra said she hoped a positive response to her referendum would jumpstart a bill she introduced in the legislature. The bill would ban school employees from "encouraging, sanctioning or promoting homosexuality." The non-binding referendum used the same wording.
It's difficult to tell exactly how many communities actually took up the item, but it appears the number is small; somewhere around fifteen. They range in size from Barre, which overwhelmingly supported the referendum, to tiny West Charleston where it was voted down. Of a dozen towns surveyed, four supported the item. The rest opposed or passed over it.
Sheltra says she doesn't take the results as a sign that people aren't interested in the issue the referendum addresses:
(Sheltra) "Oh, not at all, because I think some of the people in the towns are intimidated by the issue, unfortunately. But all in all, you have to know that anybody that was against civil unions would be very concerned about the fact that this issue is coming forth in the school system."
(Zind) But it's not clear that these issues are as important to voters this election season. Two years ago political newcomer Sylvia Kennedy of Chelsea won her house seat as an anti-civil unions candidate. Kennedy says she visited six town meetings last week. No one talked to her about civil unions. Kennedy says the people she talked with were concerned about taxes and other meat and potato issues. She says she expects people will be concerned about fiscal rather than social issues this campaign season. But she doesn't believe the people who elected her have changed their minds about civil unions or homosexuality:
(Kennedy) "If anything were to come before the legislators which would promote or further anything in that direction, I think there would be another upheaval."
(Zind) State Senator Peter Shumlin is campaigning for lieutenant governor. Shumlin says as he's been travelling the state, voters have been talking to him about school budgets, health care costs and drug abuse:
(Shumlin) "But I haven't heard one word about civil unions in this entire process."
(Zind) Shumlin thinks since September 11, people have tended to come together and forget their differences:
(Shumlin) "I think the other thing that's happened is, while many people are still very uncomfortable with the civil union bill, they recognize that it really hasn't affected their marriage, their life and they just want to move on. It's not that they like t ¿ they don't. The people who don't like still really don't like it."
(Zind) Nancy Sheltra says people still care about civil unions and how homosexuality is treated in schools. She says politicians are simply avoiding these issues:
(Sheltra) "It's not politically correct in an election year to deal with this issue. And that's one of the reasons it's being boycotted."
(Zind) Sheltra's bill dealing with how homosexuality is discussed in schools is tied up in committee. A bill passed by the house last year, which would effectively end civil unions, is not expected to make it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Steve Zind.