News: Vermont Takes First Steps to Legalize Same-Sex Unions

One house down, one senate to go. In mid-March, the Vermont House of Representatives voted 79-68 to pass House Bill 847, which, if passed by the Vermont Senate, will grant same-sex couples the rig

One house down, one senate to go.

In mid-March, the Vermont House of Representatives voted 79-68 to pass House Bill 847, which, if passed by the Vermont Senate, will grant same-sex couples the right to a civil union with all the accompanying legal benefits that male/female couples have traditionally received. But the bill designates the term "marriage" as applying only to a union of a man and a woman, according to the Vermont Legislature's Web site.

The bill is the result of a December Vermont Supreme Court ruling in Baker vs. State, in which a same-sex couple sued for the right to a state-recognized marriage. The court, turning away from religious arguments, ruled that under the Vermont Constitution same-sex couples should also have access to legal marriage. The court gave the legislature an April deadline to pass a law to do just that.

The ruling set off fireworks in the Vermont Legislature and around the country. A few Vermont legislators called for the justices to be impeached.

"I truly feel sorry for the state of Vermont," said Rep. Nancy Sheltra, R-Derby, after the House Bill was passed, according to The Rutland Herald. "We're really putting ourselves in a dangerous position of judgment from the Almighty God."

Others praised the ruling as a long-overdue recognition that same-sex couples are not second-class citizens, comparing the struggle for equal rights to that of blacks during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

To defend against the Vermont ruling, many state legislatures — including Ohio — have bills in the pipeline to limit marriage to same-sex couples. The U.S. Constitution's concept of full faith and credit mandates that states must respect each other's laws. The bills are an attempt to prevent a Vermont same-sex civil union from being recognized as a marriage by other states, just as other states recognize each other's driver's licenses and laws. The issue seems destined for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jay Hottinger, R-Newark, reintroduced Ohio Senate Bill 240, the Defense of Marriage Act, in mid-January. It restricts marriage to the existing definition: a union between a man at least 18 years old and a woman at least 16 years old. Hottinger's previous bill received a couple of hearings in 1997 and 1998 but was not adopted. The new bill hasn't been heard by a committee yet and didn't have a date for one as of press time, according to Christy Paul, Hottinger's administrative assistant.

Vermont's comprimise doesn't appeal to Hottinger, according to Susan Whittstock, Hottinger's legislative assistant.

"We would still be opposed to it," Whittstock said. "To us, it's really not that much different than marriage."

As of press time, the Vermont Senate's Judiciary Committee was listening to testimony from both sides of the issue, including leaders of Vermont's religious organizations. Four of the six Judiciary Committee members must vote to send the bill to the Senate floor, according to Margaret Lucenti, the Judiciary Committee assistant.

If that happens, the Senate will begin debating the bill and considering amendments to it probably around April 5, Lucenti said. If the Senate adopts a different version of the bill than the House did, the House would have to vote on the Senate's version.

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