- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) | Nine years after it played host to a bitter fight over civil unions, Vermont’s Statehouse is again a gay-rights battleground.

More than 200 same-sex-marriage opponents, cheering and wearing buttons that read “Marriage - A Mother & Father for Every Child,” converged Monday on Montpelier as lawmakers began a week’s worth of hearings on a bill that would allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.

If approved, Vermont would join Massachusetts and Connecticut as the only U.S. states that allow gay marriage.

The measure would replace Vermont’s first-in-the-nation civil unions law with one that allows marriage of same-sex partners beginning Sept. 1. Civil unions, which confer some rights similar to marriage, still would be recognized but no longer would be granted after Sept. 1.

Supporters cast the debate as a civil rights issue, saying a civil unions law enacted by the state in 2000 has fallen short of the equality it promised same-sex couples. Its appeal has declined, too: In 2001, the state granted 1,876 civil unions, compared with only 262 last year.

Passing a gay-marriage bill “is one of the most important civil rights issues of our time,” said Greg Johnson, a Vermont Law School professor who testified before the state Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.

While the bill won’t guarantee federal benefits, supporters say it would provide societal recognition, improve access to health benefits and eliminate one of two obstacles to federal protections such as Social Security survivor benefits.

Opponents say gay marriage would undermine traditional male-female marriage, rendering men and women interchangeable and destroying the connection between children and marriage. They want the question put to voters in a referendum.

Legislative leaders announced two weeks ago they intended to pass the bill - titled “An act relating to civil marriage” - before adjourning in May, and they have scheduled hearings to get testimony on the legal, social and practical implications of it.

A public hearing is scheduled for Wednesday night at the Capitol, which was the epicenter of the fight in 2000, when the issue divided Vermont, and partisans endured hate mail, threatening telephone messages and tense public meetings.

More than a dozen lawmakers who voted for civil unions lost their seats in the ensuing election.

On Monday, opponents organized by churches and a pair of anti-gay-marriage groups flooded the hallways of the Capitol and packed into a committee room for a strategy session with Stephen Cable, president of Vermont Renewal.

Statehouse security was beefed up for Monday’s state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. There were no arrests or problems - other than a scramble for seats in a 60-seat committee room, which forced Sergeant-at-Arms Francis Brooks to keep some irate people in a hallway, trying to listen in.

Some were upset they wouldn’t get to vote, saying gay marriage is too important to be decided only by lawmakers.

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