Same-Sex Couples Line Up for Civil Union Licenses in Vermont

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

BURLINGTON, VT. - ( - An estimated two dozen same sex couples obtained civil union licenses from city and town clerks around the Green Mountain State Saturday, in some cases only minutes after the law took effect at midnight.

While the law went into effect on a weekend, clerks in seven of the state's 260 communities decided to open their offices to accommodate those seeking the licenses. However, clerks in five other communities have either resigned or threatened to resign, or have insisted they would refuse to issue the licenses.

The first license was issued in Montpelier, to Carolyn Conrad and Kathleen Peterson. After receiving the document, the women left town hall and exchanged vows before a justice of the peace. A formal exchange of vows is required under the law, in order for the civil union to be legally recognized.

"I think the recognition that we are a legal couple, with the benefits that come along with it, are very important," Conrad said.

In Brattleboro, Town Clerk Annette Cappy opened her office at midnight and issued eight licenses, including one to a Massachusetts same-sex couple, Thomas Lang and Alexander Westerhoff, of Manchester-by-the Sea.

"It's a nothing as far as Massachusetts is concerned and it's a push for us now to push for the same rights back home," said Lang.

A male couple, from New Orleans, LA, on their way to an Alaskan vacation, also obtained a license, as did a female couple from Columbus, Ohio. Despite receiving the documents, the unions are not legal in any other state.

In Montpelier, City Clerk Margaret Picard issued three licenses. The first was requested by Lois Farnham and Holly Puterbaugh, two of the plaintiffs who sued the state for the right to marry, three years ago. The couple attempted to wed in 1997, but was denied a license. This time, after paying a $20 fee, the couple was given the license.

The couple's action set in motion a series of legal battles, which led to a December, 1999 ruling by the Vermont Supreme Court, which found unconstitutional those state laws denying same sex couples the same benefit rights enjoyed by heterosexuals.

The court's decision led the legislature to pass the Civil Union Act, which critics contend establishes a parallel system of marriage for same same-sex couples. Under the law, signed by Democratic Governor Howard Dean, homosexual couples are entitled to the same state benefits enjoyed by married couples, including survivor benefits, joint property rights and the right to make medical decisions for one another. The law does not apply to federal benefits.

"I think 27 years is a long enough commitment," Farnham said. "It will be nice to say Holly is my spouse...this tells other same-gender couples that it's only a matter of time for them."

Reacting to the implementation of the law, Democratic State Representative William Lippert, the only openly homosexual member of the legislature, said, "For the vast majority of Vermonters, Saturday will be just another day and that is probably as it should be. But it also marks a turning could be the beginning of a new era of justice for gay and lesbian people."

While Lippert was pleased, others were not. Speaking at a "Take Back Vermont" rally held in front of the state house, one opponent characterized the law as "state-sanctioned sodomy." Republican State Republican State Representative Oreste Valsangiacoma insisted most residents were "shocked" the civil union bill ever became law. "If this kind of behavior ever becomes the norm, than the human race is going to disappear from the face of the earth."

Opponents of the law have also brought suit to overturn it. Thus far, efforts to get a judge to block the law have not been successful. However, opponents contend they will continue their legal battle.

While some opponents are hoping to use the courts to overturn the law, others are taking a more direct political approach, forming several groups, including "Who Would Have Thought" and "Standing Together and Reclaiming the State," to oust lawmakers who voted for the civil union bill. Other opponents have purchase newspaper ads, including a black bordered full page ad in the June 18 edition of the Burlington Free Press, which criticized supporters as an "insufferable hubris of the narcissistic gay lobby, that would place personal pleasures before public order."