MATERIAL WORLD: Family Matters

What, exactly, are the truths we Americans hold to be self evident? Is it that some men are created equal while others are not? Or perhaps, that all men are created equal, but women are not? Surely it can't be that all of us are created equal, but become disqualified through disabling injury, religious affiliation, or sexual preference. If we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, then no judicial authority, no legislative voting bloc, and certainly no small group of religious fanatics, can take those rights away.For more than 200 years, we have been peeling away the inequities inherent in having a Constitution written by white men, however well intentioned. Women, people of color, the lame, the halt and the blind, have all had to fight for the privilege of sharing in the constitutional rights we are guaranteed as American citizens.These days, with so much political rhetoric focused on "Family Values", denying some individuals the right to form a family would seem to be the height of hypocrisy. A landmark decision on this issue is expected imminently from the Vermont Superior Court. Baker et al vs. the State of Vermont challenges the right of the State to deny individuals of the same gender the right to civil marriage.The plaintiff's case rests on the Common Benefits Clause of the Vermont State Constitution, which states in part that "Government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit,... protection, and security of the people, nation, or community, and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single person, family, or set of persons, who are a part only of that community".The original case, filed on July 22, 1997, was brought by "three same-gender couples in the Chittenden Superior Court against the State of Vermont, as well as the towns of Shelburne, South Burlington and Milton, where the couples had been denied marriage licenses.... In their challenge, the couples contended that existing Vermont laws do allow same-gender marriage and, if not, that those laws violate the State's Constitution."Vermont law contains no explicit prohibition against marriage between people of the same gender. Indeed, in the state of Hawaii, the State Supreme Court has already ruled that the state must prove a compelling reason to discriminate against these couples. The Attorney General of Vermont has argued "that multiple gender-based references in the statute to 'bride' and 'groom', and 'husband' and 'wife', were proof of the legislature's intention to limit marriage to mixed-gender couples." In addition, the State argued that same-sex marriage should not be legalized, because it would set precedent, an argument that was summarily denied.In dismissing the suit, Superior Court Judge Linda Levitt stated that the plaintiffs had presented 'compelling arguments'... for the freedom to marry, and concluded that six of the seven reasons the Attorney General offered to justify discrimination against the couples were invalid.... Judge Levitt rejected the State's contention that "the question of same-gender civil marriage should be reserved for the legislature.... Furthermore, Judge Levitt asserted it is the judiciary's job to review all statutes in light of the Vermont Constitution, when a violation of constitutional rights is alleged." The dismissal led to an immediate appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court.In an interview on Brattleboro Cable TV, Bari Shamas, Windham Regional Coordinator of the Vermont Freedom To Marry Task Force, said: "Vermont is on the way to being the first state in the United States to recognize our families. When I first set foot in Vermont over twenty years ago I knew that in this soil the roots of independence and respect for all of humanity grow. Vermont was the first state to abolish slavery. Vermont was one of the first states to enact a 'civil rights law' protecting the rights of gays and lesbians. The Vermont Supreme Court was the first to recognize the families formed by same gender couples by allowing second parent adoptions, and the legislature confirmed that stance a couple of years after that decision. Vermont is the only state so far that grants domestic partnership benefits to state employees."She went on to say: "As a nation we are still growing. New laws are enacted to ban discrimination in many areas. It was only in 1967 that the last laws barring people of color from marrying white people were declared unconstitutional. Now it is time to change laws which enforce discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens."There are those among us will never accept a level playing field, who have stubbornly opposed equal rights in this country, from voting rights, to the right of every individual to marry the partner of his or her choice. When we all become equal under the law, advantages of gender, ethnicity, and physiology disappear. Equality has its price, and there will always be some revisionists who will never willing relinquish their priority seating in the Titanic lifeboats. Time to throw them overboard.

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