Some Vermont Town Officials Refuse to Perform 'Civil Unions'

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

( - Vermont's "civil union" law takes effect July 1, and as the date draws closer, a number of Vermont town clerks and justices of the peace insist they will not issue licenses or perform ceremonies for same-sex couples.

"I have resigned," said Tunbridge Town Clerk Helen O'Donnell in an exclusive interview with

"Under my moral beliefs, I feel I cannot issue the licenses. While the law allows me to appoint someone to act in my place, I didn't think that was right either, so I did what I had to do. I resigned."

The civil union legislation, signed into law by Democratic Governor Howard Dean in April, grants same-sex couples legal rights equivalent to those enjoyed by heterosexual married couples. Although the union is legally binding, it is not called marriage, but some critics see little difference.

Family groups fear the bill as passed will have a negative impact on the state and may be used to undermine marriage laws across the country.

O'Donnell, the Tunbridge town clerk, said she decided to resign after much thought, including discussions with her pastor. "He showed me relevant portions of scripture, but he didn't try to persuade me. He told me my actions should be based on my convictions."

O'Donnell said the town selectmen have asked her not to leave her post, but she said she decided to go now, rather than subject the town to any legal expense arising from potential lawsuits.

Tunbridge is a small town of 1,200 people located about 30 miles from White River Junction.

Asked for her estimate of how many people in town support the law, O'Donnell responded, "Most of the people in town are sad that it went through."

While declining to name other dissident clerks, ODonnell said, "Some of my colleagues told me they will stay in office and fight the law and take the consequences."

O'Donnell said only a minority of the state's 251 town clerks "have a problem with the law." Asked for a number, she responded, "between 30 and 40," adding that some may end up appointing other people to issue civil union licenses.

Susan Fortunati, town clerk of Corinth, Vermont, a town of 1,250 people, insisted, "I will not issue them."

Asked how she will avoid carrying out the law, the clerk responded, "I don't have an answer. I don't have an actual plan of action as yet. I would hope to have a plan by July 1st. It's now a day-to-day situation. I have a lot to think about."

Asked if she would appoint someone else to do the job, Fortunati said, "My feeling is, if I appoint someone, I am then an accomplice to the issuance of the license."

Fortunati had no comment on whether civil unions are guaranteed by the Vermont Constitution, but she did say, "It absolutely is a moral issue for me. I believe in God, and I believe God doesn't look favorably on this type of union. I have to live with myself. Once you sell your soul, you don't get it back. I have to live by what I believe to be right."

Asked if she has considered resignation, Fortunati responded, "I have not come to a full decision about what I will do."

Municipal officials who decline to perform the civil union ceremony face legal repercussions, according to Steven Jeffrey, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

"Those refusing to perform those duties imposed by law must understand the legal implications of their actions. They are subject to penalties and fines."

According to Jeffrey, the individual towns also are subject to legal sanctions and the cost of legal fees if the clerk's refusal results in civil litigation.

"Title IX of the Vermont Public Accommodations Act also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, and town offices, where the licenses are issued, have been determined by our courts to be places of public accommodations," he said.

Those found guilty of violating the public accommodations law are subject to a fine of $1,000 for each violation.

Several justices of the peace - in the towns of Dover, Whitingham and Searsburg --insisted they would not perform the ceremonies. Two said they would resign rather than do so.

"They tell me I have to marry lesbians and gay men and I say 'no way'," said Helen Putnam of Searsburg. "What these people may do behind closed doors is fine, but I will not marry them."

According to Vermont Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz, while justices of the peace have the legal authority to perform marriages, they -- unlike town clerks -- are not mandated by law to carry out marriage ceremonies or civil unions.

The law creating civil unions grew out of a state Supreme Court decision handed down in December. The decision concluded that same-sex couples have been denied their right to the same benefits enjoyed by heterosexual married couples and that the denial was unconstitutional.

See Earlier Stories:
VT Family Groups seek 'Good Candidates' for November (26 April 2000)
Vermont Votes 'Civil Unions' Into Law (25 April 2000)
Analysis: VT Decision on 'Civil Unions' for Homosexuals (22 March 2000)