July 22, 1997: Three couples sue Vermont for marriage rights
ON THIS DAY IN 1997… Three Burlington-area couples sue Vermont for the right to marry in the movement’s first deliberately plotted test case.
Over the course of several months in the spring of 1997, one gay male and two lesbian couples separately visited clerks in their respective Vermont towns to request marriage licenses. Each time, the couple was turned down, albeit politely, and quietly headed home. Later they all received letters explaining that the state attorney general had determined local officials were bound by a 1975 opinion that Vermont’s marriage laws applied only to opposite-sex couples. On July 22, the three couples — Stannard Baker and Peter Harrington, Lois Farnham and Holly Puterbaugh, Nina Beck and Stacy Jolles — put their names on a lawsuit arguing their exclusion from the benefits of marriage violated Vermont’s constitution.”
Baker v. State was the handiwork of two local attorneys, Susan Murray and Beth Robinson, working in collaboration with Mary Bonauto of the Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. Their lawsuit had been engineered to correct for some of the deficiencies of an earlier one in Hawaii which had not been plotted as a test case and, after unexpected success in the courts, had found itself shanghaied by politicians. By the summer of 1997, the question of same-sex marriage was headed to the ballot in Hawaii, where a constitutional amendment to keep the matter out of the courts was doomed to succeed.
Before they sent would-be plaintiffs to visit their town clerks, Murray and Robinson had spent years working with local activists to organize public support for same-sex marriage across Vermont and meeting with elected officials to educate them about the issue. They timed the filing of Baker v. State so as to limit the ability of lawmakers to amend the state constitution in response. “We wanted to try to set this up so that we were driving rather than chasing,” Robinson explained.