Vermont will debate same-sex marriage this year

03/05/09 5:53PM By John Dillon
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AP Photo/T. Talbot
Gay marriage supporters in Montpelier in February.
(Host) Vermont will have the debate over same-sex marriage in the Legislature this year.

As a result, Vermont could become the third state in the nation to legalize gay marriage.

But, Governor Jim Douglas says the debate will divide the public and distract the legislature from the economy.

VPR's John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) Vermont led the nation nine years ago when it became the first state in the country to approve civil unions, which provide many of the benefits of marriage to gay and lesbian couples. Senate President Peter Shumlin says that's not enough.

(Shumlin) "I'm proud of the steps we took in 2000. But as the years have passed, my pride has given way to uneasiness. Though we provided some important legal protections in 2000, the fact remains that we also stopped short of equal rights for many of our neighbors in Vermont."

(Dillon) Shumlin said the state is no longer in the lead because both Massachusetts and Connecticut have sanctioned same sex marriage.

He wants to put the bill on a fast track in the Statehouse. He's asked the Judiciary Committee to approve the legislation by March 20th - just five days after lawmakers return from their Town Meeting break.

House Speaker Shap Smith said the bill should win approval in the House.

(Smith) "I've been very clear in the past that I support the bill and I've spoken with many of my colleagues who support it. And I believe that it will pass the House when it comes to the floor."

(Dillon) But Governor Jim Douglas says the Legislature has important work to do and not much time to do it.

(Douglas) "I don't think it's a good idea. We've got so many other issues of importance to rebuild our economy, to balance our budgets, to help Vermonters through a very difficult time in our state's fiscal and economic history. I want to guarantee that every Vermonter regardless of sexual orientation has a decent job."

(Dillon) Douglas said he's concerned about the debate dividing the Legislature.

(Douglas) "Civil unions was such a divisive topic nine years ago that I really think we ought to spend our time focused on issues that bring us together like a strong economy."

(Dillon) But Shumlin said times have changed since 2000, and that the public is more supportive of same-sex marriage.

(Shumlin) ``I want to make absolutely clear that the speaker and I are focused on job creation, economic development and how we get Vermonters through the toughest economic storm they've ever faced. But we are capable of doing more than one thing at a time or we wouldn't have been elected. We will accomplish the goals that we just outlined.''

(Dillon) Beth Robinson of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force predicts Douglas won't veto the bill.

(Robinson) ``I think when push comes to shove the governor will do the right thing. This is not a governor who will put himself on the wrong side of history. And I think the trajectory of history on this is clear.'' 

(Dillon) The legislative leaders announced their support of the bill on the same day that lawyers argued in the California Supreme Court whether a referendum overturning same-sex marriage there was constitutional.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

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