Nine years after it played host to a bitter fight over civil unions, the largely liberal state of Vermont is again a gay rights battleground.
More than 200 same-sex marriage opponents, cheering and wearing buttons that read “Marriage — A Mother and Father for Every Child,” converged on Montpelier on Monday as lawmakers began a week’s worth of hearings on a bill that would allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.
If approved, Vermont would join Massachusetts and Connecticut as the only US states that allow gay marriage.
The measure would replace Vermont’s first-in-the-nation civil unions law with one that allows marriage of same-sex partners beginning on Sept. 1. Civil unions, which confer some rights similar to marriage, would still be recognized but no longer granted after Sept. 1. Several other states allow civil unions or domestic partnerships.
Supporters cast the debate as a civil rights issue, saying a civil unions law enacted by the state in 2000 has fallen short of the equality it promised same-sex couples.
Passing a gay marriage bill “is one of the most important civil rights issues of our time,” said Greg Johnson, a Vermont Law School professor who testified before the state Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.
While the bill wouldn’t guarantee federal benefits, supporters say it would provide societal recognition, improve access to health benefits and eliminate one of two obstacles to federal protections such as government survivor benefits.
Opponents say gay marriage would undermine traditional male-female marriage, rendering men and women interchangeable and destroying the connection between children and marriage. They want voters to decide in a referendum.
Legislative leaders announced two weeks ago that they intended to pass the bill before adjourning in May, and they have scheduled hearings to get testimony on the legal and social implications of it.
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