In a defining moment in the struggle for recognition of gay and lesbian relationships, Vermont's Supreme Court Dec. 20 ruled that lesbian and gay couples are entitled all of the same "common benefits and protections" which the law gives to married couples.
The finding that the Constitution requires that gay and lesbian couples be given equal treatment under the law "is simply, when all is said and done, a recognition of our common humanity," the court said.
In a sweeping decision for four of the justices, the court left it to state lawmakers to determine whether such benefits will come through formal marriage or a system of domestic partnerships. The ruling is final and cannot be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, hailed the ruling -- the nation's first -- as a pivotal moment for civil rights in the 90's.
"Never mind the millennium, for gay and lesbian couples, a new era began today," said Matthew Coles, Director of the ACLU's national Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, which worked on the case with the ACLU of Vermont. "The court says that in Vermont at least, lesbian and gay couples should get the same treatment the law gives to heterosexual couples. Whether you call that same-sex marriage, domestic partnership or something else, it is full equality, and that is an historic first."
The couples in the case had argued that their inability to get married denied them the protection of more than 300 state laws, which, the Supreme Court acknowledged, include "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."
While the justices left it up to the legislature to ensure that same-gender partners are not denied equal benefits, it made clear that the system "must conform with the constitutional imperative to afford all Vermonters the common benefit, protection, and security of the law,'' the court said.
In a concurring and dissenting opinion, Judge Denise R. Johnson said that her colleagues had abdicated this responsibility and should have directed the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
While the ACLU and other groups have long advocated for the right to marry, Coles said that the next turn in the battle for legal recognition of lesbian and gay relationships will depend on which of the two courses the Court laid out for the Vermont legislature is followed. "If the legislature adopts a fully equal domestic partnership system," Coles said, "we can expect to see campaigns to get similar systems adopted all across the counrty. The response will be largely political. On the other hand," Coles went on, "if the legislature approves same sex marriage, people are likely to marry in Vermont and challenge their home states to recognize the marriages."
To date, 28 states have passed laws banning same-gender marriage.
Efforts to recognize same-sex marriages in Alaska and Hawai'i met with disappointment when voters approved state ballot measures to ban same-sex marriage. With today's ruling, Vermont now becomes the first state to require complete equality for same sex relationships.
In 1998, the ACLU of Vermont opposed a bill in the Vermont Legislature that would have banned same-sex marriage and prohibited recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states. The bill did not pass.
"We are delighted that the Vermont court recognized that lesbian and gay couples have just as much a right as anyone to the wealth of economic and legal benefits that it confers," said Leslie Williams, Executive Director of the ACLU of Vermont.
Coles put the decision in historic perspective. "In 1981, the mayor of San Francisco vetoed a law under which city government would have given equal treatment to domestic partners. It was too far out there. Today, not quite 19 years later, five justices of the Vermont Supreme court say the constitution demands complete equality. The change is astonishing."
The case, Baker v. Vermont, was brought by Beth Robinson and Susan Murray, two Burlington lawyers, along with Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders in Boston.
The ACLU's friend-of-the-court brief was authored by ACLU cooperating attorney, Professor David Chambers of White River Junction, Vt., working with Coles, Leslie Cooper and Jennifer Middleton of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.