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Former Rep. Tom Little of Shelburne will be chairman of the 10-member commission studying gay marriage.
BURLINGTON — The leaders of the Vermont House and Senate announced Wednesday they have formed a special commission to gauge Vermonters' thoughts on expanding marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples.
The announcement by House Speaker Gaye Symington of Jericho and Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin of Putney comes seven years after Vermont made history with its first-in-the-nation civil unions law.
The two Democrats said the commission will study applicable state laws and hold at least six hearings across the state before delivering a report on the issue to lawmakers in April 2008.
"It's time to ask if it is in Vermont's best interest to retain separate legal status for gay couples," said Symington, who supported gay marriage and civil unions as a member of the Vermont House seven years ago.
Shumlin, who was president of the Senate during the civil union debate, said he did not support gay marriage at the time, but added that "much has changed in just a few years." He said Vermonters are now ready to tackle the difficult issue.
"If I had told someone back then that just a few years later our neighbor to the east would pass civil unions without a whimper, they would have said, "You're crazy, Shumlin,'" he said. "But that is how quickly the conversation has evolved."
The political landscape regarding rights for gays and lesbians has changed since Vermont approved civil unions. Since then, several states have approved civil unions or a similar domestic partnership status, including two of Vermont's neighbors.Legislators in New Hampshire this year approved a civil union law and in 2004 Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to allow gay marriage, a law that sprang from a court ruling that denying same-sex couples the right to wed was unconstitutional.
Beth Robinson, chair of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, said Wednesday that attitudes toward same-sex rights have changed dramatically in the years since Vermont approved civil unions.
A poll of 401 Vermonters earlier this year found that 42 percent agree that gays and lesbians should have the right to get married and that another 11 percent are leaning toward that opinion, according to the organization. The poll also found that 37 percent disagreed with gay marriage.
"We support this approach," Robinson said of the legislative commission. "It's getting harder and harder to explain why gay and lesbian couples have a separate law regarding their union."
The announcement Wednesday was met with shock and surprise by Republican leaders in Vermont.
"This is another case of the Democrats distracting and dividing while there are real issues the Legislature needs to solve for Vermonters," said Rob Roper, chairman of the Vermont Republican Party.
Roper said Vermont Republicans do not have a specific platform position on gay marriage and that opinions within the party membership is probably "mixed." But he said that many Vermonters probably want the Legislature to focus on "solving our tax crisis."
Democrats denied that the statewide discussion on gay marriage would distract from legislative work when the second half of the session begins early in 2008.
Shumlin said lawmakers plan to address a wealth of issues, including bills on campaign finance reform and climate change, two issues that the Legislature tackled this year, only to see their bills vetoed by the Gov. James Douglas, a Republican.
But with the commission's report due in April, lawmakers said it was highly unlikely that the issue would be debated during next year's session, opening of the possibility that gay marriage could become a major issue in Vermont's 2008 election.
"I think any issue of this importance would become an issue in any campaign," Shumlin said.
Tom Little, a Shelburne attorney and former Vermont state representative, will chair the 10-member commission. Little, who was chair of the House Judicial Committee during the civil union debate, said Wednesday that he is framing the commission's charge as "why we should do this."
"I think people in Vermont are ready to take the next step and offer full marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples," Little said.
At his weekly press conference Wednesday, Douglas said he is satisfied that the state's civil union legislation, which was signed into law by his predecessor, former Gov. Howard Dean, supplies gay and lesbian couples with the same rights allowed to heterosexual couples.
The governor added that he is worried the gay marriage debate would be as divisive as the civil union one seven years ago.
"I don't think it is in the state's best interest to have this divisive topic revisited," Douglas said.
Annette Cappy, the Brattleboro Town Clerk who performed the state's first civil union ceremony minutes after the law took effect in 2000, said Wednesday she is pleased with the announcement.
"The same-sex couples that I've met have said their civil unions are extremely important to them," Cappy said. "But it's time we change the law and make it truly equal."
She added that the issue is likely to get mixed reaction from other town clerks across Vermont.
"The ones that disagreed with civil unions will probably disagree with gay marriage," Cappy said. "But the ones that supported civil unions will probably have no problem with gay marriage."
Symington and Shumlin made the announcement Wednesday outside of Burlington City Hall, a location that was both symbolic and practical. Symington said the location was chosen because that's where same-sex couples would pick up their marriage licenses if a new law is approved and because the location is close to her work.
Announcing the commission in Burlington and not Montpelier also drove home the lawmakers' stated desire to hear from Vermonters before the Legislature decides if it will build a new law around the commission's recommendation.
"One of the criticisms from Vermonters was that there was no time to have the discussion at the grassroots level because the Legislature was acting with a mandate from the court," Shumlin said. "This is going to be a discussion among Vermonters that will trickle back up to the elected officials."
Wednesday's announcement was a surprise to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Vermont, according to communications director Gloria Gibson. She said Vermont Catholic Bishop Salvatore Matano has not yet weighed in on the gay marriage commission, but she forwarded along a recent statement of his that defines marriage as between "one man and one woman."
"Any legislation concerning marriage has become a highly charged emotional issue which divides families, friends, neighborhoods and communities and even ecclesial bodies," the four-page statement reads in part. "This sad reality causes pain and suffering for everyone and touches upon a very sensitive and intimate part of a person's life."
The legislators on the committee are Sen. John Campbell of Windsor County and Rep. Johannah Leddy-Donovan of Burlington.
The other members of the commission are Mary Ann Carlson of Arlington, a former state senator; Berton Frye of West Danville, the owner of Frye's Quarry; former Gov. Phil Hoff of Burlington; Barbara Murphy of Johnson, the president of Johnson State College; Helen Riehle of South Burlington, executive director of Vermont Program for Quality in Health Care and a former state senator; Michael Vinton of East Charleston, former state legislator; and the Rev. Nancy Vogele of White River Junction, an Episcopal minister.
Contact Daniel Barlow at Daniel.Barlow@rutlandherald.com.MORE IN Central Vermont
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