Hearings to start March 16 on gay marriage


Friday, March 6
BENNINGTON — Legislative leaders said Thursday that they will move quickly to pass gay marriage legislation, beginning hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 16 — the day the Legislature reconvenes following the Town Meeting break.

The announcement came at a Statehouse press conference hosted by Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, and House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, as they outlined an aggressive agenda for the remainder of the legislative session.

Shumlin, who served as Senate president in 2000, when Vermont became the first state to pass civil union legislation, said Thursday he was proud of the state at the time for taking such a momentous step. But his "pride has given way to uneasiness," he said, as other states have since bypassed Vermont and have allowed gay marriage.

"Vermont is no longer alone, and we're no longer leading. Here in Vermont, people's fears in connection with the civil union law have proven unfounded," he said. "Nobody was harmed, some families enjoy a little more security, and our state is a better place for having taken that step."

Now is the time for Vermont to take another step, he said. The House and Senate Judiciary Committees have just wrapped up extensive work on a sex offender bill, and can now devote time to moving forward with gay marriage, Shumlin said.

"They now have the capacity to turn their attention to other matters, and it's become clear that we can and should work to pass a bill promoting the equal right to marry this year," he said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, will begin taking testimony on March 16 and plans to complete its work that same week. A public hearing has been planned to be held at the Statehouse on March 18.

In 2000, Vermont weathered a bitter debate over civil unions that pitted Vermonters against each other. Democrats paid a heavy political price for passing civil unions, losing many seats in the Legislature in the subsequent election.

But many people, including Bennington Town Clerk Timothy Corcoran, a former state legislator, believe the debate surrounding a gay marriage bill will be significantly more civil.

"I'm not saying it's going to be controversy free. There will still be strong feelings. There will always be strong feelings on that issue," Corcoran said. "Some will look at it as a civil rights issue and others will look at it as a violation of traditional marriage."

Shumlin said a formal head count of supporters in the Legislature has not been taken, but he believes it will have the support it needs in both chambers. "You don't make this a party issue. This is very much a personal vote," he said. "I do think there is support in the House and Senate because it's fair."

Some Republicans, such as Rep. Patti Komline of Dorset, the House minority leader, have said they would support gay marriage.

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There will be resistance, though. Republican Gov. James Douglas' Deputy Chief of Staff Dennise Casey said Thursday that the governor does not believe gay marriage is required to allow for equality.

"Gov. Douglas believes that we have achieved equality through our civil union law," she said.

Instead, the Legislature should remain focused on working to solve the state's growing economic woes caused by declining revenues and a deep recession.

Shumlin countered by saying "the Legislature is capable of doing more than one thing at once."

The Catholic Church remains opposed, too. Monsignor Peter Rouphier of the Catholic Diocese of Burlington said the Church remains opposed to the idea of gay marriage.

"We've been dealing with the issue for over a year in terms of our approach. I think people would understand where we stand in terms of our Catholic faith," Rouphier said.

He referred to a lengthy July 2007 statement made by Bishop Salvatore R. Matano when asked about the Church's position on the legislation. In the statement, Matano said "it has been and continues to be the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church that marriage is the union of man and woman.

It was not so long ago that this was a commonly held definition by peoples of different cultures and creeds, believers and nonbelievers. It is not the intent of the Church to deprive people of their natural and God-given rights. Unfortunately, the Church's defense of marriage as defined above is interpreted in this negative way," he wrote.

Rouphier said the diocese has not yet been contacted about testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. A draft plan of the testimony schedule shows several members of the clergy, including Bishop Matano scheduled for March 18.

Also listed are Bishop Thomas Ely of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, Rev. Lynn Bujnak of the United Church of Christ and Rev. Daniel Jantos of the North Chapel Universalist Society.

Corcoran said some town clerks resigned in 2000 rather than issue civil unions to gay couples. He said he believes most clerks would have no problem issuing a civil marriage license to gay couples if gay marriage is passed this year.

"If that's what the law is we follow the law," he said. "We work under the statutes the Legislature passes."

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com


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