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VERMONT HOUSE GIVES FINAL APPROVAL TO CIVIL UNION BILL

Boston, MA
April 25, 2000

For More Information:
Mary L. Bonauto, Esq.
Gary D. Buseck, Esq.
Jennifer L. Levi, Esq.
(617) 426-1350

By a vote of 79 to 68, the Vermont House of Representatives today gave final approval to a "civil union bill" which extends all the rights and benefits of state law to same-sex couples.

"This is history. This is thrilling. This is the dawn of a new era of support and protection for the families of lesbian and gay couples and their children," said Gary Buseck, Executive Director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), the legal organization which co-counseled the landmark case that prompted today's legislative action.

Governor Howard Dean has stated he will enthusiastically sign the bill.  Most of the new law will become effective July 1, except for provisions relating to insurance and taxes which become effective in 2001.

"This is a breathtaking step forward in providing basic legal protections to same-sex families. It will make an enormous difference to real people and real families on a day-to-day basis," said Mary Bonauto, a GLAD attorney who litigated the Baker v. State case along with co-counsel Beth Robinson and Susan Murray of Langrock, Sperry & Wool. "We applaud the courage and conviction of the Vermont legislature in standing up for the families of gay and lesbian Vermonters," she added.

As of July, same-sex couples will be able to enter into a legal institution intended to be parallel to marriage. To get a civil union, parties must be at least 18 years old and not closely related by blood. They will be able to obtain from any town clerk a civil union license, which may then be "certified" by a justice of the peace or willing member of the clergy.  Couples will receive a civil union certificate rather than a marriage certificate.

As a practical matter, the civil union status confers on parties to a civil union the identical state law protections and responsibilities as are available to spouses in a marriage. The legal status of gay and lesbian families will be transformed from "legal strangers" to legal "next of kin."  This includes preferences for guardianship of and medical decision-making for an incapacitated partner; automatic inheritance rights; the right to leave work to care for an ill spouse; hospital visitation rights; control of a partner's body upon death;  the right to be treated as an economic unit for tax purposes under state law, including the ability to transfer property to each other during life without tax consequences; greater access to family health insurance policies; the ability to obtain joint policies of insurance and joint credit; parentage rights; and the right to divorce (called a "dissolution") and to an ordered method for ascertaining property division as well as child custody and support. The law applies to private parties as well, and discrimination against parties to a civil union is considered both marital status and sexual orientation discrimination.

While people from other states may go to Vermont for civil unions, just as they do for marriages, those same-sex families from outside Vermont still need take the limited measures they can in their own states to protect their families, for example, by having wills and powers of attorney for financial and medical decision-making.

"While we will continue to work for equality in civil marriage, the message of common humanity and equality for gay and lesbian families coming from Vermont is a message which can be taken home to any state. By changing the focus away from the word "marriage" and looking instead to the legal protections and responsibilities provided by to married families, people in other states should be able to forge a fair common ground with lawmaker who seek to support all families," said Bonauto.

Founded in 1978, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) is New England's leading legal rights organization for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and people with HIV. GLAD's mission is to achieve full equality and justice for all individuals in these groups, primarily through impact litigation and education.

Mary L. Bonauto, Esq.
Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders
294 Washington St., Suite 740
Boston, MA 02108-4608

(617) 426-1350
fax (617) 426-3594
email: mbonauto@glad.org