Monday, December 20, 1999

Same-sex pairs
due benefits

Justices rule gay couples
should get protections
granted opposite-sex pairs

Staff and wire reports


Gay couples must be granted the same benefits and protections given married couples of the opposite sex, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled today. The ruling was described as the first of its kind in the nation.

The court said the Legislature will determine whether such benefits will come through formal marriage or domestic partnerships.

Gay-marriage opponents in Hawaii had mixed reactions to the Vermont ruling, while supporters said it would set a precedent that state legislators here can't ignore.

"This is very positive for the country and ultimately for Hawaii," said attorney Dan Foley, who filed a lawsuit in 1991 on behalf of three same-sex couples who sought Hawaii marriage licenses.

Earlier this month, Hawaii's Supreme Court slammed the door on gay marriages in the state, once considered most likely to legalize same-sex unions. The state's high court said the issue was resolved by a 1998 amendment to the state constitution against gay marriages.

Mike Gabbard, chairman of the Alliance for Traditional Marriage, which embarked on a campaign last November urging Hawaii voters to approve the amendment, said the Vermont ruling was a victory because it did not give gay couples the right to marry but sent the decision back to legislators.

"But it's a bummer trying to force legislators to mandate these benefits," Gabbard said. "The government should not be granting these benefits. If the private sector wants to do this, and many companies are doing this, it's up to them."

In 1997 the Hawaii Legislature passed a law that extended equal benefits to unmarried couples, but Foley said the law was too broad. Because some lawmakers did not want to extend those benefits specifically to gay couples, they included heterosexual couples such as mothers and daughters, Foley said, and people who did not even know each other could technically have applied for the benefits.

Local businesses were not happy with the broadness of the law and filed a lawsuit in federal court. The state attorney general agreed not to enforce the statute.

Foley said many businesses did not have a problem giving equal benefits to same-sex couples who were committed to each other and that they were small in number and would have little impact on company expenses.

Foley said there are pending bills in the Legislature that would specifically define same-sex couples to get the same benefits married couples now have.

In Vermont, whatever marriage or domestic partnership system is chosen by the Legislature, the Vermont court said, "must conform with the constitutional imperative to afford all Vermonters the common benefit, protection and security of the law."

"We hold that the state is constitutionally required to extend to same-sex couples the common benefits and protections that flow from marriage under Vermont law," the Vermont justices said.

Jennifer Levi, a lawyer at Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders in Boston, who worked as co-counsel on the Vermont case, said that "what the court seems to be saying is that our families can't be denied the full range of protections that come along with civil marriage."

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, which filed arguments opposing gay marriage, said the court "left open the possibility that we will see a marriage statute in Vermont that will impact this kind of arrangement or this kind of relationship."

"This is the first appellate court that has said there is a state constitutional right for same-sex marriage," he said.

Vermont was the only other state whose top court was considering the issue, and today's ruling had been anxiously awaited by both sides in the highly charged debate over same sex marriages.

Today's ruling stems from a suit filed in July 1997 by three couples -- one of gay men and two of lesbians -- after they were denied marriage licenses by their local town clerks.

The three couples filed suit in Chittenden County Superior Court, but a judge rejected their claims. The couples then appealed to the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments in the case 13 months ago.

The couples argued that their inability to get married denied them more than 300 benefits at the state level and more than 1,000 at the federal level. The Court acknowledged that the benefits included "access to a spouse's medical, life, and disability insurance, hospital visitation and other medical decision-making privileges, spousal support, intestate succession, homestead protections and many other statutory protections."

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