The civil union law was a great step forward, but it falls short in critical ways that harm Vermonters. Same-sex couples and our families won't enjoy full protections and inclusion until we are no longer excluded from civil marriage-- in Vermont and every other state. It's a question of family, and of civil rights. Here's why:
* MARRIAGE IS IMPORTANT. Being "married" is one of the benefits of civil marriage that's important to many people, gay and non-gay. The term "marriage" means something to many people who have grown up in a world where "marriage" signifies a lifetime committed partnership. "Civil union" simply doesn't carry the same meaning. If a Vermont couple joined in civil union is in a car accident in South Dakota, the emergency room physician may not have any idea what a "civil union" is. We know that physician would understand what a marriage means. By the same token, if we told all married, heterosexual Vermonters that starting tomorrow they would no longer be considered legally married-- that they would be called "civil union partners"-- many wouldn't want to give up the title "married." Yet that's exactly what the laws continue to deny same-sex couples.
* "SEPARATE" IS UNEQUAL The exclusion built into the civil union law is harmful. As the Massachusetts Supreme Court acknowledged, ruling that a civil union law would be unconstitutional, "The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal." The civil union law gives same-sex couples benefits, but assigns gay and lesbian couples to a separate line at the town clerk's office, telling gay and lesbian Vermonters that our families are not fully included in the Vermont community. We don't need a separate line for gay people at our town clerk's office; it's not the Vermont way.
* CIVIL UNIONS FAIL TO PROVIDE IMPORTANT PROTECTIONS Couples joined in civil union still lack important legal protections that heterosexual, married couples take for granted. For example, Holly is currently the primary breadwinner in her family. If she should die, Lois, her partner of over 35 years, wouldn't get Holly's social security survivor benefits, but would be left to fend for herself. This disadvantage hurts their family tremendously. Likewise, if civil union spouses Bill and Joe travel to Maine for the weekend, and Joe is seriously injured in a car accident, Bill's ability to make important medical decisions if Joe can't speak for himself is in doubt. Maine should recognize their civil union, but we know from experience that doesn't always happen.
Eliminating Vermont's discrimination in civil marriage won't solve these problems immediately since Vermont can't control the discrimination of other jurisdictions. But we can do everything in our power to make sure Vermont is not part of the discrimination, and to send a strong, clear message that Vermont-- long a leader on matters of important civil rights in no way supports discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens and our families. And we can do our part to advance the movement for full legal and civil right for gay and lesbian Vermonters, and gay and lesbian Americans.
In short, the civil union law provided same-sex couples with some legal rights. Now it's time to extend those same couples equal rights.