By Ivan Shadis
A new historic marker on the Statehouse lawn now celebrates Vermont’s role in advancing marriage equality in the United States.
The green and gold aluminum sign installed Tuesday stands halfway between the Statehouse and the Vermont Supreme Court building. It honors the state law that allowed gay couples to form civil unions in 2000 and the enactment of same-sex marriage in 2009.
Vermont was the first state in the country to allow civil unions and the fourth to legalize same-sex marriage.
The Vermont Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that same-sex couples were constitutionally entitled “to the same benefits and protections as married opposite-sex couples,” but left it to the Legislature to determine how to implement the ruling.
All four plaintiffs in that case, Baker v. State of Vermont, were present for the commemoration.
Stan Baker, standing next to his husband, Peter Harrigan, at Tuesday’s gathering of about 50 lawmakers and others said they sued because “marriage was a core institution of our society, and being barred from it was akin to not having the right to vote. We also understood that, if any person or couple is excluded from a right that others have, then no one’s rights are safe.”
Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, was vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee when lawmakers struggled to implement the ruling in the spring of 2000.
“We actually created the term civil unions,” Lippert said. “We did not have the votes then to do full marriage.”
The contentious debate that precipitated civil unions was remembered as an impeccable example of civic engagement.
David Schütz, Vermont state curator, said that era was unforgettable. “The building was crammed beyond capacity, and it was a nightmare, in some respects, but at the same time it made me incredibly proud that I lived here,” he said.
Baker lauded the willingness of lawmakers and the public to debate the issue. “While the discussion was difficult and often vitriolic, Vermonters had a conversation that they otherwise never would have experienced,” he said. “Regular folks found themselves using words they never used before — homosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, same sex. People who before were able to maintain a veneer of tolerance suddenly had to face their own heterosexism.”
Some state legislators feared voter reaction if they supported civil unions. Lippert remembered one colleague in particular.
“Our friend and legislative colleague, the late representative Marion Milne, stood on the House floor amidst the civil union debate and, in her unique and powerful voice, Marion proclaimed, ‘I will not be silenced by prejudice and fear,’ even as Marion recognized that she could be ending her legislative career by taking her stand,” Lippert recalled.
In the spring of 2000, the House and Senate passed civil unions legislation and Gov. Howard Dean signed it into law on April 26.
Milne was one of 16 incumbents who supported civil unions and lost re-election, resulting in Republicans gaining control of the House for the first time in 14 years.
Democrats subsequently regained control of the House and resistance to same-sex unions mellowed. Gov. Jim Douglas vetoed gay marriage in 2009, but the Senate overturned the veto, legalizing same sex marriage that year.
Gov. Phil Scott, who ran against civil unions as a state senator, said the historic marker “will fittingly celebrate Vermont’s commitment to advancing civil rights” and he acknowledged his own change of heart. “Upon reflection, passing the civil union legislation in 2000 was the right thing to do,” the governor said.