Full marriage rights for same-sex couples may be a better choice for Connecticut, say Vermont gay rights advocates who have been living with civil unions for five years.
Although the civil union system being considered by Connecticut legislators would extend all state rights and responsibilities of married heterosexual couples to gay and lesbian couples, same-sex couples still would not be able to get married. And that's the problem, said Beth Robinson, one of the attorneys who argued on behalf of same-sex couples in a 2000 lawsuit that resulted in Vermont's becoming the first state to recognize civil unions. "There's no question that law creates a separate box for same-sex couples. It sends a message that says you're not quite equal, you're not quite worthy," she said. "That affects our kids. That affects our families. That affects the couples."
Robinson rates the achievements of civil unions as "a mixed bag." "It's too bad we that we just didn't pass a marriage equality law in Vermont, " she said. "I hope they do that in Connecticut."
On Wednesday the Connecticut legislature's judiciary committee approved a bill that would create a Vermont-style civil union system. But some Connecticut gay rights activists are against the bill, saying lawmakers should make marriage available to same-sex couples.
Leaders of the committee say they believe there is more support in the legislature this year for civil unions. Many have pledged to continue fighting for marriage in future sessions. "My prediction is, in two or three years, we'll be voting on a bill enacting same-sex marriage. It's inevitable," said Democratic representative Michael Lawlor, cochairman of the judiciary committee. "There's clear momentum moving in that direction." In the meantime, he said, civil unions would provide same-sex couples and their families with real protections and advantages.
Opponents of same-sex marriage in Connecticut say they are just as concerned about civil unions and are ready to put up a fight this legislative session. Marie Hilliard, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, said this week that she believes civil union is just another term for gay marriage.
Under the Vermont-style civil union system, same-sex couples can be joined in a union by anyone who performs marriage ceremonies. Since July 1, 2000, more than 1,000 Vermont couples and more than 6,000 out-of-state couples have sought civil unions in Vermont. Vermont legislators have changed all the state's statutes that refer to marriage and spouses to take into account civil union partners, ensuring that a civil union mirrors all aspects of marriage under state law.
With those changes, same-sex couples have been given access to all sorts of state services. They've also gained inheritance rights, the ability to qualify for a partner's health insurance, and the right to file a joint Vermont tax return, among other things.
Rep. Bill Lippert, a Democrat and chairman of Vermont's house judiciary committee, said there are only a couple words that differ under state law when comparing civil unions and marriage. First, a marriage is "solemnized," while a civil union is "certified." And a married couple goes through a "divorce," while
a civil union is "dissolved."
Lippert, who was vice chairman of the committee when the Vermont legislature drafted the civil unions bill, said he and his fellow lawmakers were breaking ground when they came up with the compromise. Vermont legislators were forced by the state's highest court to come up with a way to provide the same benefits and protections that married people enjoy to gay and lesbian couples.
But as Connecticut voluntarily considers the same issue, Lippert said legislators should recognize a lot has changed since 2000. For example, couples in Massachusetts can now marry. "The time and context is entirely different," he said. "To choose between same-sex marriage and civil unions in Connecticut in the winter of 2005 is a very different set of choices than to choose between them in Vermont in the
winter of 2000."
Lippert said he also believes marriage is the right choice in Connecticut rather than civil unions. "It's interesting to note that what was a cutting-edge, groundbreaking achievement in 2000 in Vermont has now become much more the moderate, conservative alternative," he said.
Evan Wolfson, executive director of the New York-based Freedom to Marry organization, said Connecticut legislators should not write off the possibility that marriage could pass this year. He believes the state's citizens and its legislature are ready for such a change. Establishing civil unions, he said, would constitute a missed opportunity.
"I think that Connecticut doesn't need to create a halfway treatment for committed couples as a step toward marriage but instead should allow those couples the same rules, the same respect, and the same responsibilities," he said. "Connecticut can treat its families fairly and doesn't need two lines at the
clerk's office, depending on what kind of family you are," Wolfson added. (AP)