As a groundbreaking new law takes effect this month, the state of Vermont sets a historic benchmark for the recognition of lesbian and gay families, extending to same-sex couples nearly all the rights, protections, and obligations of marriage, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Friday.
Starting July 1, gay couples in Vermont will be able to apply for a "civil union," a parallel institution to civil marriage. Civil unions will provide for protections in inheritance and property division, child custody and visitation, family leave, state tax benefits and other incidents of marriage under state law.
Like married couples, people seeking a civil union must receive a license from a town clerk, while dissolution proceedings will be handled in divorce court. The law exceeds even Hawaiis current Reciprocal Beneficiaries legislation, as well as all domestic partnership programs.
"Through this law, Vermont becomes a pioneer for families and equality. Americans will see that when lesbians and gay men are given access to most of the rights and obligations of civil marriage, the sky will not fall and the institution of marriage will be even stronger," said Lambda Marriage Project Director Evan Wolfson, who leads the nationwide effort to secure the freedom to marry for gay couples.
He added, "The majority of Americans today believe that gay and lesbian people will win the freedom to marry. That gives hope that those same-sex couples who are civilly united someday soon will be treated as fully equal, which means one line at the marriage bureau, rather than two."
In April, the Vermont legislature enacted the "Act Relating to Civil Unions," which extends to gay couples the effect of every State law, regulation, and court precedent that applies to married couples. The legislation was in response to a ruling by the Vermont Supreme Court in Baker v. Vermont, which last December held that the state was constitutionally obligated to treat gay couples equally. Lambda was a friend of the court in that case.
For the purposes of state law, Vermont spouses in a civil union will enjoy the same state-level protections and responsibilities available to spouses in a civil marriage. Couples from outside Vermont also will have a valid civil union, although it is unclear how their home states or the private sector will treat their civil unions.
Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn said, "We hope many states will follow Vermonts lead by recognizing these civil unions and establishing their own civil union laws. Even the more than 30 states which have discriminatory marriage laws are not exempt from recognizing either the civil unions or the spouses familial relationships." She added, "For complete security, couples in a civil union should continue maintaining wills, powers of attorney, health care proxies, parenting agreements, and other legal documents to safeguard their family."
Lambda is the nations oldest and largest legal organization for the civil rights of lesbians, gay men and people with HIV/AIDS. Headquartered in New York, Lambda has regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta.