Vermont Supreme Court Supports Rights of Homosexual Couples

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

( - Homosexual couples must be granted the same benefits and protections given heterosexual married couples, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled on Monday. The ruling was described as the first of its kind in the nation.

According to wire service reports, the court said the Legislature will determine whether such benefits will come through formal marriage or a system of domestic partnerships.

"We hold that the state is constitutionally required to extend to same-sex couples the common benefits and protections that flow from marriage under Vermont law,'' the justices said.

Whatever marriage or domestic partnership system is chosen by the Legislature, the court said, "must conform with the constitutional imperative to afford all Vermonters the common benefit, protection, and security of the law.''

Jennifer Levi, a lawyer at Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders in Boston, who worked as co-counsel on the Vermont case, said that "what the court seems to be saying is that our families can't be denied the full range of protections that come along with civil marriage.''

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, which filed arguments opposing gay marriage, said the court "left open the possibility that we will see a marriage statute in Vermont that will impact this kind of arrangement or this kind of relationship.''

"This is the first appellate court that has said there is a state constitutional right for same-sex marriage,'' Sekulow said.

Earlier this month, Hawaii's Supreme Court slammed the door on gay marriages in that state, once considered the most likely to legalize same-sex unions. Hawaii's high court said the issue was resolved by a 1998 amendment to the state constitution against gay marriages.

Vermont was the only other state whose top court was considering the issue, and Monday's ruling had been awaited anxiously by both sides in the highly-charged debate over same sex marriages.

Monday's ruling stems from a suit filed in July, 1997, by three couples - one gay couple and two lesbian couples - after they were denied marriage licenses by their local town clerks. The clerks acted on the advice of the state attorney general, who relied on a 1975 opinion by a predecessor calling same sex marriages unconstitutional.

The three couples filed suit in Chittenden County Superior Court, but a judge rejected their claims. The couples then appealed to the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments in the case 13 months ago.

The couples argued that their inability to get married denied them more than 300 benefits at the state level and more than 1,000 at the federal level. The Court acknowledged that the benefits included "access to a spouse's medical, life, and disability insurance, hospital visitation and other medical decision-making privileges, spousal support, interstate succession, homestead protections, and many other statutory protections.''

Monday's ruling cannot be appealed to the US Supreme Court since the Vermont court based its decision on the state Constitution. The Vermont Supreme Court is the state's only appeals court.

Governor Howard Dean has declined to state a position on same sex marriages, saying that he was awaiting the decision of the court. But the lieutenant governor, Douglas Racine, and the speaker of the Vermont House, Michael Obuchowski, have said they favor same sex marriages.

In 1993, Hawaii's Supreme Court ruled that the state's failure to recognize gay marriages amounted to gender discrimination.
The ruling set off pre-emptive legislating around the nation. Lawmakers feared that gay couples would fly to Hawaii to get married and that the 49 other states would then have to recognize those marriages.

At least 30 states have banned gay marriages, and Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal recognition of homosexual marriage and allowed states to ignore same sex unions licensed elsewhere.

Advocates of same sex marriage had high hopes for the Vermont case because the state is considered a leader in laws protecting gay rights. Vermont has passed laws prohibiting discrimination against gays in employment, housing, and public accommodations and a law that punishes hate crimes against homosexuals.