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Marriage Equality in Vermont: How It Happened and Why It's Crucial

Vermont is the first state to permit gay marriage rights through a democratically elected legislature.
 
 
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Vermont may not be the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. In fact, it's not even the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in the past week -- that designation belongs to Iowa, where the State Supreme Court overturned a ban on gay marriage last Friday.

But nonetheless, when the Vermont Legislature overturned a veto from Republican Gov. Jim Douglas and legalized same-sex marriage, it was indeed a historic moment. Vermont is the first state to permit gay marriage rights through a democratically elected legislature, as opposed to Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa, where courts ruled it unconstitutional to ban the practice. And many feel that this victory is a sign of things to come in the battle for marriage equality.

"The fact that Vermont is the first state to legalize same-sex marriage through legislation is very significant," said Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont American Civil Liberties Union. "Eventually, there will be marriage rights for everyone in the country, but it will take years of work and lots of education."

The legislation is significant, but it was not easy to pass. Despite Vermont's largely liberal citizenry, the passing of S.115 was far from certain. While there was no doubt the Vermont State Senate would be able to overturn Gov. Douglas's veto -- it supported the legislation 26-4 last week -- the vote was much closer in the House.

House Speaker Shap Smith needed 100 votes to overturn Douglas's veto, despite only securing 95 yea votes in the original passing of the bill. But Vermont Democrats played hardball with the opposition in their own party.

Shay Totten, a columnist for Seven Days , Vermont's alternative weekly newspaper, reported that "Democrats who oppose the bill could also face primary challenges next year -- it's that important an issue for some leaders."

And in the end, the leadership was able to whip several nay voters into the yea column, and finished with the 100 votes they needed, compared with forty-nine opposed. Rep. Albert "Sonny" Audette, a Democrat who opposed the bill due to his Catholic upbringing (and actually apologized to his colleagues on the floor for doing so), simply stayed home for Tuesday's override vote.

The passing of the bill marks another chapter in what is now a decade-long debate over same-sex marriage in the state. Vermont is only nine years removed from a contentious and emotional battle over civil unions, which saw Vermont become the first state to pass equal rights -- if not equal recognition -- for gay couples.

Advocates at the time celebrated the passing of the civil union legislation, but not without trepidation. "So many people felt that civil unions were not enough," Gilbert said. "There was always the implication that, at some point, Vermont would move on and that there was a promise of sorts to gays, that finally got fulfilled today."

Of course, much like in 2000 when civil unions prompted a " Take Back Vermont" movement that helped oust legislators who supported civil union legislation, there was intense opposition this time around. Hundreds of same-sex marriage opponents gathered outside the State House with "Thank you, Jim" signs, praising the governor for his controversial veto.

Much of the opposition came from outside the state. Several legislators got reports of " robocalls," deceiving constituents by wrongly telling them their representatives had changed their minds on the subject. Some calls were traced back to the National Organization for Marriage, a New Jersey based nonprofit dedicated to "protect[ing] marriage and the faith communities that sustain it."

 
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