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Gay Couples Recieve Right To ‘Civil Unions’ in Vermont

By Hanna Rosin and

Pamela Ferdinand

In the first significant breakthrough for advocates of gay marriage, the Vermont House Thursday approved historic legislation allowing gay couples to form “civil unions” that carry many of the benefits and responsibilities of traditional marriages.

The bill stops just short of legalizing gay marriage, instead setting up a network of state benefits for gay couples, covering everything from hospital visits to inheritance rights to state taxes. Still, if it becomes law as expected, Vermont will have gone much further than any state in sanctioning same-sex unions.

The bill is a response to a Vermont Supreme Court ruling in December that found that gay and lesbian couples were being unconstitutionally denied the benefits of marriage. But the high court left it up to the legislature to decide whether to allow gay marriages or create some kind of domestic partnership instead.

The Vermont House chose a version closer to the latter, voting 75 to 69 Thursday to approve the bill. Hundreds lined the galleries of the House chamber to watch the debates Thursday, with supporters attaching pink stickers to their lapels. Opponents wore white.

The Senate is expected to approve the measure by the end of April, and Democratic Gov. Howard Dean has said he would sign it if it does not change significantly.

The new gay civil unions are likely to rekindle what has become one of the most sensitive debates in America. In anticipation that gay marriage measures would take hold, more than 30 states have already passed the Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and allowing states not to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. It is still unclear whether those laws would preclude civil unions established in Vermont.

Under the bill passed Thursday, gay and lesbian partners may apply for a license from a town clerk and get their civil union certified by a justice of the peace, a judge or a clergyman.

Partners in a civil union would be eligible for 300 state benefits given to married couples covering every phase of life. They could transfer property, make medical decisions for each other, inherit estates and oversee one another’s burials. Such couples could also file a joint state income tax return.

The federal government still would not recognize such unions with regard to such things as immigration rights, Social Security benefits and federal taxes.

Vermont gays would also be subject to burdens similar to those of married couples.

Partners who want to end their civil union would have to go through a dissolution proceeding in family court, similar to divorce proceedings. They would also assume each other’s debts.

Although the bill comes close to recognizing gay marriage, lawmakers reserved the term “marriage” for the union of a man and a woman, adopting an amendment making that clear.

In the months since the state Supreme Court decision, many Vermont towns have held heated debates on the proposal.

Gay rights advocates were elated by the decision, describing it as a distant hope they never quite expected would happen.