Tuesday, October 30

Why same-sex marriage has to be the next step in Vermont

The quoted sections below are all from the Burlington Free Press or the Rutland Herald, reporting on the same-sex marriage commission's hearing last night

Let's start with the Free Press:

"A marriage license would deliver no more rights than a civil union license," Greg Johnson told the Vermont Commission on Family Recognition and Protection. That marriage license wouldn't unlock the 1,096 benefits that the federal government offers only to married men and women, he said. It's also unlikely it would open doors in states other than the eight where Vermont civil unions currently receive some recognition.

I've heard this argument before. This argument is the same as the argument which pretends that global warming doesn't exist. Don't bother trying to reduce carbon emissions! It won't help enough anyway. Why even bother? But really, this is about more than just what's happening today. It's about what's right, what's relevant and what's worth doing.

Here's Johnson again, as reported in the Herald:

Meanwhile, some states have taken upon themselves to either recognize or reject civil unions or same-sex marriage, Johnson said. Right now, eight states recognize Vermont's civil unions as a marriage equivalent, he said, but more than 40 states have passed laws defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

This is a little misleading. While 40 states have laws defining marriage as between one man and one woman, Vermont is one of those states and not all those states have received constitutional challenges. It's not clear from this extreme simplification of a complicated issue where the truth of the matter lies.

What's more relevant, however, is even simpler. Having a two-tiered system in Vermont is wrong. Even if it produces no specific tangible benefits anywhere else in the country (it does, but I'll get to that in a bit), it's still right to lead on this. Vermont was the first to move towards Civil Unions. Vermont should be the first to take the step of being the first state in the union to move towards full marriage recognition without a court requirement.

Why should we do this?

Because we're ready for it and it's clear and obvious that there's a need for it.

Let's put it in simple terms. The Hearld reports on a comment by Peter Teachout from last night's hearing:

But there are intangible differences between civil unions and traditional marriage, such as that marriage is more widely recognized as a union in the common culture, according to Teachout. The Vermont court did not address that in its 1999 ruling that led to civil unions, but same-sex couples do speak of feeling separate or unequal from heterosexual couples due to the distinction, he explained.

In Vermont, some legislators who supported civil unions lost their seats after that historic move. Two years later, Republicans lost their short-lived majority. Today, Republicans hold a fairly small minority in the legislature, with Democrats and Progressives holding a fairly impressive dominance. The political damage of civil unions was small and short-lived. Howard Dean, who signed the bill into law, was re-elected with a clear (though close) victory, exceeding the 50% necessary to avoid the election being moved to the legislator, against some blistering attacks from both the right (anti-civil-union Republican Ruth Dwyer) and the left (Progressive Party stalwart Anthony Pollina).

In Massachussetts, when the state legislature refused to take active steps to block court-mandated same-sex marriage, none of them, no one who came out directly in favor of same-sex marriage lost their seat.

I mention these two facts for very relevant reasons. The Free Press references Vermont Law School professor Michael Mello's statement at the hearing:

"If the Vermont Legislature adopted gay marriage, the rest of the country and world would pay attention," Mello said. Unlike in 2000, when the Legislature was under pressure from a court decision, a change now would signal something significant.

Civil unions changed the nature of our political dialogue. While they were once vehemently opposed by the right, when same-sex marriage was debated in Massachusetts they become the more conservative alternative to marriage. They became the fall-back right-wing position.

Vermont led, in a baby steps, the pathway to full equality. Now it's time for Vermont to grow up and take responsibility for its earlier vote and replace it with full marriage equality.

Will it work in other states? Only a few, for the moment. This will change, over time. But, in the meantime, take this scenario: a same-sex couple is traveling with their kid in Wisconsin and there's a car accident. The one member not incapacitated by the accident is the one who's not biologically related to the child. So when the nurse asks if you're a family member, what answer do you think will make the most sense? That nurse may not be legally obligated to let the conscious family member make decisions, but it's a lot more likely that the nurse will recognize the relationship if the response is "we're married" than if it's "we have a civil union."

This is real. It is tangible and it goes way beyond symbolic gestures.

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