- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2000

A bill that creates marriage-like "civil unions" for homosexual couples passed the Vermont Legislature yesterday and is headed for the desk of Gov. Howard Dean, who has said he will sign it.

Civil unions will give homosexual partners hundreds of Vermont state rights and benefits now restricted to legal spouses.

Yesterday's 79-68 vote in the Vermont House of Representatives was hailed as "the dawn of a new era" for gay couples and condemned as a day of "infamy."

If enacted as expected, the bill will take effect July 1, although some tax and financial benefits are delayed until Jan. 1, 2001.

The bill has no residency requirement, which means that any homosexual couples can apply for civil-union licenses.

Although Vermont is the only state preparing to provide rights and benefits to civil-union couples, it is widely expected that out-of-state couples who get Vermont civil-union licenses will sue for benefits in their local courts.

It marks "the dawn of a new era of support and protection for the families of lesbian and gay couples and their children," said Gary Buseck, executive director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), the Boston group that handled Baker vs. Vermont, the lawsuit that led to the bill.

"This is a breathtaking step forward in providing basic legal protections to same-sex families," said GLAD attorney Mary Bonauto, who with Vermont lawyers Beth Robinson and Susan Murray of Langrock, Sperry & Wool, represented three homosexual couples who in 1997 sued Vermont for violating their constitutional right to equal marriage benefits.

On Dec. 20, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in favor of the three couples and told the state legislature to either create same-sex "marriage" or a parallel system that gives homosexual couples the same rights and benefits that married spouses receive.

The bill that passed yesterday meets this mandate. The plaintiff couples Stan Baker and Peter Harrigan, Stacy Jolles and Nina Beck and Holly Puterbaugh and Lois Farnham, watched the vote.

"This isn't marriage, but it's a huge and powerful bundle of rights that we've finally gotten," Mr. Baker told the Associated Press.

Many people in Vermont have been dismayed by both the court ruling and the legislature.

"If this bill passes, this day shall live in infamy throughout the country and throughout the world. This is against natural law," Republican Rep. Henry Gray said before the vote.

"We're disappointed but not surprised" by the bill's passage, said the Rev. Craig Bensen, a leader of Take It to the People, a grass-roots group that opposed the bill.

Civil unions are "another step … in a gay agenda to deconstruct family and society," said Mr. Bensen, who predicted the issue would play a major role in the November elections, when every legislative seat is on the ballot.

According to GLAD, the civil-union bill will allow couples who are at least 18 years old and "not closely related by blood" to obtain civil-union licenses from a county clerk. The licenses must then be certified by a judge, justice of the peace or clergyman.

Civil-union partners will become "next of kin" and receive "the identical state law protections and responsibilities as are available to spouses in a marriage," GLAD said. These rights include automatic inheritance; leaving work to care for an ill partner; hospital visitation; being treated as an economic unit for tax purposes under state law; and greater access to family health insurance policies.

Civil unions may be dissolved in family court.

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