- Sasha Issenberg
April 26, 2000: Vermont enacts civil-union law
ON THIS DAY IN 2000…
Vermont Governor Howard Dean signed a bill to establish the country’s first civil unions, a marriage-lite program developed by legislators facing a court deadline.
Three same-sex couples had sued for marriage rights in state court in the summer of 1997, arguing that their exclusion violated a provision of the Vermont Constitution guaranteeing the government provide a “common benefit” to all people. In December 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, but didn’t give them everything they wanted. While excluding gays and lesbians from marriage violated the Vermont Constitution, a majority concluded in Baker v. State, the legislature was free to award them equal benefits without necessarily permitting them to marry. Within minutes of the ruling, Dean made clear his preference for the minimalist option, telling reporters he wanted to see “the domestic partnership act and not the gay marriage act.”
Over the winter of 2000, lawmakers obliged, creating a new institution known as “civil union,” open only to same-sex couples. Everything would be identical to marriage but for the name. The two chambers of the legislature synchronized slightly different versions of An Act for Civil Unions on April 25, and the next day Dean signed it. The law took effect that July.
Over time, Dean — who considered running for president in 2000 and would do so in 2004 — would portray his move as a courageous stand for civil rights in the face of anti-gay activists already plotting to undo the legislature’s work through a constitutional amendment. But at the time he was not eager to take ownership of the new law: Dean signed the bill in his office without ceremony. Only staff members were present.