Most Vermont civil unions go out of state, commission finds

by Lawrence Morahan, posted Tuesday, August 14, 2001 (17 years ago)

WASHINGTON (BP)--A year after Vermont became the first state to grant marriage rights to same-sex couples in the form of civil unions, a state review commission found that most unions went to out-of-state residents, CNSNews.com reported Aug. 14. At least one civil union is being used to challenge marriage laws in another state.

Bill Apao, director of Public Health Statistics with the Vermont Department of Health, said as of the week of Aug. 6, 2,554 civil unions had been granted to same-sex couples since the law went into effect on July 1, 2000. Of those, 2,044 unions went to out-of-state residents, he said.

The passing of civil unions legislation in April 2000 caused an uproar in Vermont that led to a Republican takeover of the House for the first time in 16 years. The controversial legislation also inspired movements to either amend state constitutions or pass laws preventing civil unions in Nebraska, Massachusetts and Maine.

In Georgia, a same-sex couple is using their civil union to challenge that state's child custody laws.

The case began when an ex-husband of a woman who entered into a Vermont civil union with another woman sued her for violating a custody agreement that prohibited the mother from allowing anyone who was not a close relative or legal spouse to spend overnight visits with her while the children were in the house.

But the mother argued that her partner is her legal spouse because they obtained a civil union in Vermont. A Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the husband, Darien Burns. Oral argument before the Georgia Court of Appeals is set for Sept. 12.

"The ramifications of this case are huge as it relates to family values and same-sex marriage," said Mathew Staver, president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel, and attorney for Burns.

If the court approves a civil union as the equivalent of marriage in Georgia, that would amount to a judicial creation of same-sex marriage and would set a precedent for 48 states outside Vermont and Georgia to have civil unions considered in their states, Staver said.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a brief in support of the claim of the same-sex couple. Several Republican lawmakers and a few Democrats in the Vermont House recently filed a friend of the court brief urging the Georgia appeals court to uphold the lower court's ruling.

Republican Nancy Sheltra, a co-signer and an opponent of civil unions, said the legislators wanted to make the statement that civil unions were not marriage under Vermont law and "our intent was not for the law to allow for this type of situation."

Depending on how the Georgia court decides, the ruling can ultimately be appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court. If the court rules on the constitutionality of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, it could go to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the court rules on state law, then it will stop at the Georgia Supreme Court level, Staver said.

The Vermont Civil Union Review Commission heard from homosexual advocacy groups that legislatures in Rhode Island, Hawaii, Washington, California and Connecticut are considering proposals modeled on Vermont's civil unions.

The 11-member commission, which includes two House members and two state senators, also looked at whether there was an undue burden on the court system for dissolution of civil unions.

But civil unions haven't been around long enough to see break-ups, said Craig Bensen, vice president of Take It to the People, a grassroots organization opposed to civil unions.

"You've got to get five years under your belt before you start seeing a significant number of break-ups," he said.

The commission looked at the consequences of the law and its impact on other states, Bensen said.

"We're getting more of 'the sky isn't falling, there aren't any problems, there will be no impact' -- which are the same lines we heard when they were getting ready to push this thing through last year," he said.

In recent months, civil unions have been going almost exclusively to out-of-state residents as the number of eligible Vermont couples who wanted to form partnerships -- just over 500 at last count -- already have performed the ceremony.

After Vermonters, civil unions are most popular with residents of New York, Massachusetts and California. Unions also have been granted to couples from Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, India, Guatemala and Venezuela.

Female couples applying for civil unions outnumber males by about two-to-one.


Morahan is a senior staff writer with CNSNews.com. Used by permission.

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