Vermont Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage, Overrides Governor’s Veto

Just days after the Iowa Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that the state’s ban against same-sex marriage was unconstitutional (see my previous post on this here), the Vermont Legislature has overridden Governor Jim Douglas’s veto of a law recognizing gay marriage. The veto override surpassed the required two-thirds majority of members present by a single vote, 100-49. There was much less drama in the Senate, where it passed easily on a 23-5 vote. The law goes into effect September 1.

With the vote, Vermont becomes the fourth state to currently recognize same-sex marriage. The other states include Connecticut, Iowa, and Massachusetts. (California briefly legalized gay marriage, although a constitutional amendment banning it was narrowly passed by voters in November 2008.) This marks the first time a state has legalized gay marriage through legislative action, however. In all other cases, it was legalized by state court decisions that found that statutes prohibiting same-sex marriage violated state constitutions.

Vermont is building on its history of greater openness concerning the rights of same-sex couples. In 2000, Vermont became the first state in the nation to allow civil unions for gay couples.

After suffering a string of defeats in states that adopted constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, the recent victories for proponents of same-sex marriage in Iowa and Vermont suggest that some momentum is now being built up in the other direction. In New Hampshire, the House of Representatives narrowly approved a bill to legalize same-sex marriage just last month. The Senate is expected to take up the measure as soon as this week.

Much has been made about the definition of “marriage.” While often colored by religious beliefs and semantic hair-splitting, the debate is really about the right of two people to pledge their love, support, and fidelity to each other, and to accept the benefits and responsibilities that accompany that commitment.

While some religious beliefs may preclude sanctioning same-sex marriage, this does not mean that we should not have civil marriages as well. Otherwise, atheists, agnostics, and other non-religious people could never be married either. And what of the religious freedom of those who adopt a faith that does accept same-sex marriage?

People are free to believe that same-sex marriage should be illegal or a lesser institution than “traditional” marriage, but that does not give them the right to enforce those beliefs on others. An increasing number of state supreme courts have correctly found that the right to marry is an issue of individual freedom and equal protection under the law, a fundamental right that cannot be taken away by any act of a state legislature. It is refreshing that, in the case of Vermont, unlike the other states that have legalized same-sex marriage, it was not necessary for the courts to serve as a check on the power of a legislature that had overstepped its authority and usurped an individual’s right to marry.

Thanks to this New York Times article for the aforementioned background information.

For more on same-sex marriage, see my op-ed in the Orange County Register from last August and my policy brief on California’s Proposition 8, which, unfortunately, ended up re-banning gay marriage in the state last November.