In Dramatic First, Vermont High Court Orders State to Treat Gay & Non-gay Couples Equally

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Legislature Left to Devise How to Extend Rights of Marriage to Same-Sex Couples
December 20, 1999

(NEW YORK, December 20, 1999) — The Vermont Supreme Court, in a unanimous first of its kind ruling Monday, ordered the state legislature to extend to lesbian and gay couples the same rights, protections, benefits and obligations available to non-gay couples through marriage, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said.

Lambda Marriage Project Director Evan Wolfson said, "This is a glorious day. Vermont's highest court has ordered an end to unequal treatment of lesbian and gay families."

Chief Justice Jeffrey L. Amestoy, in his 45-page opinion, wrote, "We hold that the State is constitutionally required to extend to same-sex couples the common benefits and protections that flow from marriage under Vermont law."

He added, "The extension of the Common Benefits Clause to acknowledge plaintiffs as Vermonters who seek nothing more, nor less, than legal protection and security for their avowed commitment to an intimate and lasting human relationship is simply, when all is said and done, a recognition of our common humanity."

The High Court rejected each of the state's rationales in denying lesbian and gay couples access to civil marriage, ruling that the state constitution's equal benefits clause prohibits that state government from conferring a whole range of benefits and protections through marriage, but excluding some people based on the sex of her or his partner. The state must now provide to lesbian and gay couples all the benefits and protections accorded to non-gay couples through marriage.

The three victorious Vermont couples were represented by attorneys Beth Robinson and Susan Murray of Langrock, Sperry & Wool, and Mary Bonauto of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. Lambda, co-counsel in the pioneering Hawaii marriage case, spearheads the national campaign to win the freedom to marry for lesbians and gay men and filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Vermont case in support of the couples.

While the Court held that all the benefits and protections of marriage must be made equally available, the justices explicitly did not rule on the constitutionality of a "separate but equal" status – extending the benefits and protections of marriage without actually recognizing the relationships of lesbian and gay couples as marriages. In a separate opinion, Associate Justice Denise R. Johnson believed the Court should have gone further by immediately allowing lesbian and gay couples access to civil marriage.

"Americans are recognizing that it is time to end this discrimination, which harms so many families," said Lambda Executive Director Kevin M. Cathcart. "While it can take long court battles to secure basic civil rights, we have no doubt that this ruling ensures that our families will see justice," he said.

Added Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn, "This opinion contains the unprecedented acknowledgment that the government has as great an interest in protecting gay couples as it does for non-gay couples. This decision marks the start of a tremendous sea change that will surely improve life for lesbian and gay families."

The Vermont couples appealed to the Supreme Court after a lower court reluctantly dismissed their case in 1997. The trial judge had found all but one of the state's justifications for marriage discrimination "invalid," failing "to even approach a valid public purpose," and "without any common sense or logical basis." The one surviving rationale for denying lesbian and gay couples the freedom-to-marry – that marriage ensures procreation – was soundly rejected by the Vermont Supreme Court.

The Vermont ruling comes 11 days after the Hawaii Supreme Court stopped short of recognizing the freedom to marry of lesbians and gay men in Baehr v. Anderson. That case is credited with sparking the national discussion about lesbian and gay families and the freedom to marry.

Lambda's brief was joined by the Vermont Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights and People For the American Way Foundation. Founded in 1973 and with offices in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta, Lambda is the nation's oldest and largest legal organization serving lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS.

(Baker v. Vermont, No. 1009-97CnC)

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Contact: Peg Byron 212-809-8585 x 230, 888-987-1984 (pager)
Evan Wolfson 212-809-8585 x 205


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