Vermont activists say they are not satisfied with the civil union law, which they described at a Vermont Law School conference last week as second-class matrimony.
At the daylong meeting, titled "Got Marriage?" lawyers, activists, legislators, and legal scholars said the state's 2000 civil unions law doesn't go far enough. "We've got work left to do," said Beth Robinson, a Middlebury lawyer who successfully argued the Baker case before the Vermont supreme judicial court, which set the stage for Vermont's civil union law.
Michael Mello, a professor at the law school and the author of the new book Legalizing Gay Marriage, said the civil unions route is the "separate but equal" approach to gay marriage rights. Mello said civil unions wouldn't pass civil rights muster.
An amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would essentially ban gay marriage and civil unions, would never be endorsed by the U.S. Senate, conference participants agreed. But the companion movement, with individual states adopting "defense of marriage" laws, is a dangerous attack on gay rights, panelists said. Such measures, which are on the ballot in several key states this November, could bring large numbers of fundamentalist Christians to the polls, affecting the outcome of the presidential race in close states like Oregon.
Vermont attorney general William Sorrell, who delivered the keynote address, said a U.S. constitutional amendment would "absolutely overrule" Vermont's Baker decision. Sorrell said he has a bridge he'd like to sell to anyone who thinks otherwise, "and the price is really right.... No way does our civil union law survive."
Fifty years ago, he said, "states' rights" was a code word for racism. Now federalism is used to restrict individual civil rights and to "bully the states," added Sorrell, who is the head of the National Association of Attorneys General. Sorrell said progress has been slow on gay rights but that the federal government will eventually ban discrimination in employment and public accommodations based on sexual orientation.
An amendment banning same-sex marriage, he said, "is a thinly veiled attack on our independent courts and our independent judges." Sorrell said he places a good deal of faith in his children's generation, who accept gay rights as a given. "They're people just like everyone else," he quoted his children as
lecturing him, while telling the audience that his kids are not "Birkenstock liberals" but mainstream teenagers watching reality television.
The session, the first of the new academic year, was the 10th annual conference on sexual orientation and the law. It was sponsored and presented by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Alliance of Vermont Law School.