'Civil Unions' Bill Expected to Pass Vermont House

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

(CNSNews.com) - The speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives predicts that a bill creating "civil unions" for homosexual couples will pass later this week.

"We will have the votes," House Speaker Michael Obuchowski said Tuesday.

"We feel pretty good about it," said Democratic House Majority Leader John Tracy, from the town of Burlington. "We're within shouting distance and the response we've had since town meetings has been good."

A final House vote could come as early as Wednesday. However, the outcome remains unpredictable, since many amendments are expected to be offered, and that could alter the final bill.

While Vermont lawmakers press ahead with the civil union plan, many Vermont voters aren't so sure they like the idea. In last week's town meetings where the issue was discussed, Vermont voters rejected the idea of civil unions. However, those votes against the proposal were non-binding referendums.

While some supporters insist civil unions are not the same thing as marriage, others insist they are one and the same.

In a civil union, a gay or lesbian couple would obtain a license from a town clerk, before holding something called a "certification ceremony." In the event the relationship ends, the division of property, custody issues and other matters would be handled by a family court judge, the same way such matters are handled in heterosexual divorce cases.

Under the civil union concept, gay and lesbian couples would have the same legal rights as heterosexual couples.

After last week's town meetings, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said voters might have had a different reaction if they clearly understood the bill does not legalize homosexual marriages.

Dean attended several of the town meetings, and in one session, a Vermont voter accused the governor of exhibiting "a gross lack of leadership to allow this crazy decision."

Despite the public's opposition to same-sex marriage, Dean said he remained committed to extending the same "civil rights" enjoyed by heterosexual couples to homosexual couples.

In December 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that gay and lesbian couples should enjoy the same benefits given to their heterosexual counterparts.

However, the state's high court left it up to the Vermont legislature to determine how the ruling should be carried out - by legalizing homosexual marriage, or by creating domestic partnership arrangements. Advocates describe civil unions as a domestic partnership arrangement.

The civil union legislation recently passed the Vermont House Judiciary Committee on a unanimous bipartisan vote. Should the bill pass the House, it would then go to the Senate. If approved there, the legislation would go to Gov. Howard Dean, who is expected to sign it.