July 1, 2000: Civil unions come to Vermont
Updated: Jul 19, 2020
TWENTY YEARS AGO TODAY… Same-sex couples in Vermont were able to register their relationships as civil unions.
Six months earlier, the Vermont Supreme Court had ruled that denying gay couples the ability to marry violated the “equal-benefits clause” of the state constitution. But unlike future rulings on the subject, the decision in Baker v. State did not order the state to issue marriage licenses on equal terms to all couples. Instead, the court sent the issue to the legislature, with instructions to institute any scheme that entitled same-sex couples to the same benefits as opposite-sex ones. Governor Howard Dean immediately encouraged legislators to do the least the court would let them get away with: award the benefits, but don’t call it marriage. The three lawyers who had filed the suit — including Mary Bonauto, who fifteen years later would appear before the U.S. Supreme Court to argue for a nationwide right to marry in Obergefell v. Hoddges — rued this as a bittersweet, even Pyrrhic, victory. Beth Robinson, now herself a judge on the Vermont Supreme Court, lamented that the court was “sending us to the very political cauldron from which the Constitution is designed to shield unpopular minorities.”
It was a Republican state representative named Cathy Voyer who devised with the term “civil-union package” to describe the parallel structure that emerged from committee hearings. It would be exactly like being married — not only the same rights, benefits and responsibilities, but same way to “get in and out,” as some described it — but available only to same-sex couples still excluded from the real thing. Voyer’s name stuck, as did the new political option: support for civil unions became a refuge for moderate Democratic politicians like John Kerry and Barack Obama, who were able to say they believed in equal rights for gay couples while still deferring to religious sensitivities around marriage. The bill took effect on July 1, 2000. That summer in Vermont, many civil-union ceremonies were staged like weddings, just with different paperwork, and the press was at times confused about the distinction. (An article in the Los Angeles Times was headlined: "Gay Couples Wed Across Vermont After Civil Union Law Takes Effect.”)
But the novel institution many gay-rights activists disdained as a separate-but-equal alternative to marriage had a short life. In April 2009, Vermont’s legislature passed the Marriage Equality Act, overriding a gubernatorial veto, to become the first state to deliver marriage rights to same-sex couples through the political process rather than the courts. When that bill took effect, Vermont closed its civil-unions régime, and many couples who had taken part immediately converted their relationships into marriages.When the federal government began recognizing same-sex marriages, after the Supreme Court’s Windsor ruling in 2013, the gap between the two expanded greatly. But in Vermont the novel institution still persists: couples that registered their relationships before September 2009 have been told that if they like their civil unions, they can keep them.