Vermont governor Howard Dean said Saturday that if elected president, he would recognize the marriage rights of same-sex couples. He said he would not propose a federal law to give gay and lesbian couples the right to get married but that he would advocate that the federal government recognize state laws that grant gays and lesbians the rights and benefits of marriage.
"As president of the United States, I will recognize civil unions, which will then allow full equality under the law as far the federal government is concerned," Dean said in a speech to a convention of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association in Philadelphia.
Vermont is the only state in the country that formally recognizes relationships of gay and lesbian couples. Through a pact known as civil unions, approved by the legislature in 2000, the state grants same-sex couples all of the rights and benefits of marriage that are conferred by state government. Dean made a point of saying that civil unions are not marriage, emphasizing that civil unions are a parallel but separate institution. Nonetheless, the law does confer state benefits to same-sex couples, such as state tax advantages and health care and inheritance rights. "We have full civil marriage rights [for gays and lesbians]; we just don't call it marriage," Dean said.
Dean said it's not the federal government's role to become involved in marriage statutes but that if individual states would follow Vermont's lead and create what amounts to marriage contracts for same-sex couples, the federal government should be obligated to recognize them. "What I am not going to do is tell every state they have to pass civil unions," he said.
Dean's position essentially would undo a law known as the Defense of Marriage Act. That law, passed during the Clinton administration, prohibits the federal government from recognizing marriages that are not between one man and one woman.
Dean said that as president he would not be able to undo that law without the approval of Congress. But he said he would encourage Congress to repeal it and recognize gay and lesbian couples. He also said that as president, he would allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. military.
Federal recognition of same-sex relationships could be significant. Roughly 1,000 benefits flow to married couples from the federal government, including immigration rights, tax advantages, and insurance.