Saturday, March 21
BENNINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a same-sex marriage bill Friday, and it is now expected to be taken up Monday by the full Senate.

After a week of emotional and sometimes intense debate, the committee voted to advance the bill on a 5-0 vote. Sen. Kevin Mullin of Rutland County, the lone Republican on the committee, voted in favor of the bill after an amendment he proposed seeking a statewide referendum on the issue was defeated.

The committee spent much of the week taking testimony on the bill. Business leaders and clergy spoke out about the economic and societal impact the bill may have. And a public hearing Wednesday evening drew about 1,000 people, packing the House chamber and several overflow rooms.

Supporters and opponents of the bill, which would allow gay couples to receive a civil marriage license beginning Sept. 1, argued passionately for their sides. Though emotional, the debate lacked much of the bitterness that pervaded the debate over civil unions in 2000, when Vermont became the first state in the nation to approve such a measure.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said the difference may be that Massachusetts and Connecticut "have already gone the route of marriage and, at the time, nobody had done civil unions."

Vermont would be the first state to adopt same-sex marriage without a court order if the bill becomes law.

Sears said considering a same-sex marriage bill "was every bit as difficult for committee members" this time, and he is "happy that the committee is done with the bill."

"I don't think you can ever say that any vote like this is going to be easy because you know that ... many of your constituents are going to be very upset about your vote," Sears said. "There's no way that this type of thing becomes an easy vote."

He said the testimony heard from the public Wednesday was likely the reason the bill received unanimous support.

"I think that the public hearing, for some of the people ... who might have been on the fence, I think that the hearing process swayed them to do what they think was the right thing to do," Sears said.

Mullin said he was not thrilled when Democratic leaders in the Legislature announced during the Town Meeting break that same-sex marriage would be a top priority for the remainder of the session. But Mullin said the committee approached the task fairly.

"Having taken it up, I think we all diligently listened to the testimony and came to a decision that this was the right thing to do," he said.

Mullin said he went into the process thinking it was a "colossal waste of time and that civil unions were equal to marriage." But he said he reserved judgment until after hearing all of the testimony.

"The decision I made was to adhere to my constitutional oath of office where I swore to uphold the Constitution," he said.

Mullin's amendment seeking a statewide referendum on the issue was defeated 4-1. Mullin said he will introduce the amendment again when the full Senate debates the legislation.

"I still wish and am hopeful that the entire Senate will allow the people of Vermont to have a say in this issue," he said. "I think it would be more helpful to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters if all Vermonters have a chance to have their say."

Sears called a statewide referendum a "slippery slope to go down," saying lawmakers may seek a referendum on too many issues.

"My reasons for not supporting the referendum were many. I've just never believed in them whether they be for same-sex marriage or gun control or whatever," he said.

He said Vermonters "have a referendum every two years" called elections.

Targeted for defeat

After lawmakers approved civil unions, many lawmakers who voted for it were targeted and defeated in the subsequent election. Mullin, who voted against civil unions as a member of the House, said he heard he is already being targeted because of his vote for same-sex marriage.

"You can't worry about that. You have to do what's right," he said.

Republican Gov. James Douglas said he is opposed to the bill, believing civil unions achieved equality for same-sex couples. He has not said whether he will veto the legislation, however, if it clears the Legislature.

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, said the bill will be taken up on the floor of the Senate Monday afternoon, and a final vote could be taken as early as Tuesday.

"I am extraordinarily grateful to the Judiciary Committee and to Sen. Sears and to all Vermonters ... for the thoughtful discussion that has been heard this week," Shumlin said.

He said the state has made great progress in the years since the civil union debate.

"I think the fact that they voted out the bill unanimously reflects how far we've come on this issue in the past nine years," Shumlin said.

Contace Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com.