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Benefits, protections, responsibilities


A new “civil union” law took effect this month in Vermont, granting gay and lesbian couples more than 300 of the benefits, protections and responsibilities previously reserved to married heterosexual couples - everything from health insurance benefits to inheritance rights, taxation, legal parenthood and hospital visitation.

As gay and lesbian couples obtain civil union certificates, or licenses, and have them certified by a justice of the peace, clergy member or judge, Vermont - as well as the nation - takes a bold step into a better future. The new law goes farther than other state legislation in offering fair treatment and equal benefits to gay couples.

This historic new law is a legislative compromise resulting from a Vermont Supreme Court decision last December. “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,” wrote Chief Justice Jeffrey L. Amestoy in a unanimous (five-judge) court decision.

Two groups - the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church and Take it to the People, a grassroots coalition supporting traditional marriage - have led the law’s detractors.

“Take it to the People” is a curious misnomer because the people already have had much to say. After four months of spirited debate, the Vermont House of Representatives approved the civil union bill by a vote of 79 to 68; and the Senate passed it by a vote of 19 to 11. The governor signed the bill into law last April.

This new law, like other civil rights achievements, derives from a combination of court decisions and legislative acts. That’s how the democratic process works in representative democracy.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that civil union is the issue in Vermont - not religious or civil marriage. For religious traditions that permit it, clergy members will be at liberty to certify civil unions under the new law. It will not require any member of the clergy - including Catholic priests - to do so.

Nonetheless, Bishop Kenneth A. Angell, representing the state’s Catholic hierarchy, feels so “disappointed” and “disenfranchised” that he has entered the political debate, calling for the defense of marriage as a “sacred covenant between one man and one woman, entered into for life and open to the possibility of children and family.” Angell and his allies advocate a constitutional amendment to enshrine into law his religious tradition’s definition of marriage.

Angell and 15 other New England Catholic bishops have slammed the Vermont legislature and its civil union law: “Such legislation will undermine cultural and religious respect for marriage,” they wrote in a statement issued by Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law. The statement even accused the Vermont legislature of “prepar[ing] the way for an attack on the well-being of society itself.” The bishops offered no statistics, no studies, no evidence supporting such irrational claims.

I know many gay people who not only honor their fathers and mothers, but also greatly respect marriage and the family. My own story is an example. I enjoyed the unconditional love of my parents who were married for 46 years until my father’s death a year ago.

If those hyperbolic charges from the false prophets of doom are not enough, consider this one: “Those seeking to redefine marriage for their own purposes are the ones who are trying to impose their values on the rest of the population,” the bishops wrote.

That charge serves a convenient purpose - cloaking the regional hierarchy’s irrational fear of homosexuality. The bishops use the issue of civil unions as a political tactic to divert the faithful from a vitally important issue for the Catholic church - an honest dialogue about homosexuality.

Meanwhile, mainstream Protestant denominations - Presbyterians and United Methodists, for example - openly debate their clergy’s participation in same-sex commitment ceremonies. Other Protestant denominations - Unitarian Universalists and the United Church of Christ - already permit their ministers to bless committed, monogamous same-sex relationships. Last March, Reform Judaism declared that gay relationships are “worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual,” freeing their rabbis to officiate at same-sex unions.

Vermont’s new law is not a redefinition of marriage. Rather, civil unions provide a parallel system of responsibilities and protections for gay couples - the same ones enjoyed by married heterosexuals under the state’s marriage laws. For now, the civil unions law is a viable political compromise. It also reaffirms a healthy separation of church and state, one that fully that respects all religious traditions, including Roman Catholicism.

Chuck Colbert is a lay graduate divinity student at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass. He serves on the board of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. His e-mail address is CrcIIIUND@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, July 28, 2000