- Sasha Issenberg
April 7, 2009: Vermont enacts marriage law
ON THIS DAY IN 2009…
Vermont’s House of Representatives voted to override the governor’s veto of a marriage bill, making it the first state to legalize same-sex unions through the legislative process.
The first time Vermont’s legislature had considered gay marriage, it had done so under a court’s order. In December 1999, ruling on a challenge from three gay couples seeking to marry, the Vermont Supreme Court ordered that the state could no longer continue denying them the benefits available to opposite-sex couples. But the court’s majority did not mandate the right to marry itself, and legislators responded by generating the novel institution of “civil unions,” which encompassed every aspect of marriage except the emotionally resonant name. The intense conflict engulfed the state’s politics over the course of 2000, bringing a sharp edge to the state’s typically convivial politics.
Over the next several years, gay-rights activists were too busy defending civil unions from a possible repeal via constitutional amendment to push anew for marriage rights, and even sympathetic politicians wanted little to do with the issue. “Many of my colleagues were very nervous. And I have to say I was as well to a degree,” House Judiciary Chairman Bill Lippert later reflected. “But many people had been defeated because they’d supported civil unions, Republicans and Democrats. So the idea of continuing to work toward yet another climactic engagement of this issue was, frankly, terrifying for numbers of our colleagues.”
Yet after seeing progress in other New England states — marriage in Massachusetts and Connecticut, civil unions in New Hampshire and domestic partnership in Maine — the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force pushed ahead. In 2007, pro-gay-rights legislators chartered a 11-member Commission on Family Recognition and Protection in the hopes of reinvigorating the marriage debate. But although its 2008 report outlined meaningful differences between civil union and marriage, including how they were recognized by out-of-state governments, the commission nevertheless did not formally recommend a change in law.
In the late winter of 2009, following the election of several new pro-gay-marriage lawmakers, supporters made their first legislative push in almost a decade. In the first week of April, the Marriage Equality Act comfortably passed the House and then the Senate with comfortable margins. But the margins did not appear large enough to overcome the veto threatened by Governor Jim Douglas, a moderate Republican. The two chambers took up a veto override, this time with the Senate going first. As the dominant question shifted from recognition of same-sex families to the balance of powers between the branches of state government, coalitions shifted; a number of legislators who had opposed the original bill voted to assert their primacy in the lawmaking process. On April 7, the Marriage Equality Act became law over the governor’s signature.
While at the time it appeared that the incremental route taken by Vermont — acceptance of civil unions as an on-ramp to full marriage equality down the road — would serve as a model for other states, if not the nation, it would ultimately prove the exception. When the Marriage Equality Act took effect, on September 1, 2009, Vermont also ended the practice of granting new civil unions.