Senate committee begins deliberation of same-sex marriage bill

03/16/09 5:51PM By Bob Kinzel
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VPR/John Dillon
Michelle Childs of the Legislature's legal staff briefs the Senate Judiciary Committee on the same sex marriage bill.

(Host) The Senate Judiciary committee opened its deliberations this afternoon over a proposed gay marriage bill. And people flocked to the Statehouse to witness the beginning of the debate.

Meanwhile, opponents of the bill held their first rally and vowed to defeat the legislation.

VPR's Bob Kinzel reports:

(Francis Brooks) "You are in here observing this committee at work. If someone says something that you like, you're not allowed to applaud cheer...

(Kinzel) That's Sergeant at Arms Francis Brooks giving instructions to hundreds of people who jammed the main hallways of the Statehouse.

There were so many people that the hearing was delayed for half an hour to see if the meeting could be moved to a larger conference room.

When a decision was made not to move the hearing, many opponents complained that they were being denied access to this public process. 

At the start of the meeting, Senate Judiciary chairman Dick Sears asked if gay marriage provides more specific legal benefits than Vermont's current system of Civil Unions.

That question was answered by former Shelburne Rep.Tom Little. He chaired the House Judiciary committee in 2000 when the Civil Union law was passed and most recently, he chaired a special commission on Family Recognition and Protection.  Little said the answer is probably no:

(Little) "That is a Vermont same sex marriage could share many perhaps most of the deficiencies of a Vermont Civil Union considering the non recognition of both by federal law and by the laws of all but a handful of the states."

(Kinzel) But Little said a gay marriage law would provide certain intangible but important benefits that the Civil Union law, also known as Act 91, doesn't include:

(Little) "There may be no better evidence of a deficiency of Act 91 than the continuing debate over the ownership of the word marriage. Marriage carries the benefits and burdens of thousands of years of human experience unique to a male female social institution the testimony underscored why lesbian and gay couples desire access to the word marriage it's current and historical meaning significance in how they and their supporters believe that access to it is their constitutional right."

(Kinzel) Greg Johnson is a professor at Vermont Law School who urged lawmakers to pass the Civil Union law in 2000.  He says he no longer believes that the "separate but equal" approach of the law is good public policy:

(Johnson) "The question is still an open one here in Vermont since it's not one that the Vermont Supreme Court had to deal with however since Baker a clear trend has been to find that a separate system of Civil Union is unequal and discriminatory the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial court certainly thought the word marriage matters the Court cited Brown vs. Board of Education said flatly that separate is not equal."

(Kinzel) The committee will continue to take testimony all week and senator Sears says he hopes his panel will vote on the bill on Friday.

For VPR News, I'm Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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