MONTPELIER — Gov. Jim Douglas said Wednesday he will veto a gay-marriage proposal if it passes the Legislature, the first time he has signaled such an intent before final legislative action on a bill. Speaking at an afternoon news conference, the Republican governor said that he thought Vermont's first-in-the-nation civil unions law, passed in 2000, provided sufficient rights to same-sex couples and that he believed "marriage should remain between a man and woman."
"For those reasons and because I believe that by removing any uncertainty about my position we can move more quickly beyond this debate, I am announcing that I intend to veto this legislation when it reaches my desk," he said.
The announcement drew immediate condemnation from the Democrats who run the House and Senate and the head of the leading group supporting same-sex marriage in Vermont.
"I'm profoundly disappointed. I think this is a sad day for Vermont and Vermonters," said Beth Robinson, chairwoman of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force.
Robinson said she was surprised by the timing and content of the governor's message.
"I didn't think we would be engaging with the governor on this until we got through the legislative process," she said.
The head of a group opposing the bill, Stephen Cable, of the Vermont Marriage Advisory Council, hailed Douglas' announcement.
"I think the governor has done the right thing," he said. "It's a courageous move."
The fact this was the first time the governor, in his fourth two-year term, had jumped ahead of the legislative process to announce his intent to veto a bill drew bitter criticism from lawmakers.
"It seems to me that announcing your decision on a veto before the process has played out is essentially undermining our democratic system of government," said House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown.
Lawmakers vowed to continue dealing with the bill, which passed the Senate on a voice vote Tuesday after winning preliminary approval there by a 26-4 roll call vote a day earlier. The measure is in the House Judiciary Committee and is expected to be up for a vote in the full House late next week.
The governor said he wasn't trying to influence House members, including fellow Republicans, by announcing his stance before their vote.
"On such an intensely divisive issue as this, I expect all members will vote as their individual conscience indicates and in the best interest of their districts, and not as the political leadership dictates," Douglas said.
He added he and his aides would not try to influence lawmakers as House action nears.
House Minority Leader Patti Komline, R-Dorset, a supporter of the bill, said she took the governor at his word. She said she doubted either the Republican or Democratic caucuses would be completely unified.
The 150-member House has 95 Democrats, five Progressives, two independents and 48 Republicans.
Douglas had sent increasingly strong signals that he didn't like the bill. He first complained that lawmakers should be focused on the state's economic and budget problems and continued on Wednesday to call the gay marriage debate a distraction. Last week, he said he believed marriage should be between a man and a woman but wouldn't say whether he would veto the bill.
The complaint about the issue being a distraction did not sit well with the bill's lead sponsor in the Senate, Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor.
"The governor thinks civil rights is a distraction," Campbell said. "That's disgusting."
Since Vermont passed its civil unions law, which permits state benefits for gay spouses, California, New Jersey and New Hampshire have followed suit. Massachusetts and Connecticut allow full marriage for gay and lesbian couples.
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