Published April 15, 2010 in the Rutland Herald
Symposium set to explore gay rights
MONTPELIER – It's been 10 years since Vermont passed its historic civil union law and one year since it passed its same-sex marriage equality law.
Seizing on the historic occasion, the University of Vermont has teamed up with the Vermont Law School to host a two-day symposium today and Friday on same-sex rights across the country – a debate that focuses on where the movement has been and where it is going.
"Vermont is an inspiration across the country when it comes to recognizing the rights of same-sex couples," said Ilona Turner, a staff attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and one of the participants at the two-day event, taking place in Burlington and South Royalton.
Part of the event, which is free and open to the public, will focus on what is happening on the same-sex marriage rights battle across the country, including two separate paths taken by advocates to achieve legal recognition — and the rights that come with that — of their relationships.
Greg Johnson, a professor at Vermont Law School, said the movement is at a "crossroads" between state and federal efforts to expand same-sex rights. Marriage is legal in five states for same-sex couples and a handful of others recognize civil and other unions for gay and lesbian couples.
"For a lot of groups, the question has been whether they should go state or go federal," said Johnson, who testified before the judiciary committees in Vermont as they debated the issue last year. "Both are high risk. Both have rewards."
Mary Bonauto, the civil rights project director for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, said all the paths to equality for gay and lesbian residents may be both incremental on the state level and expansive on the federal level.
Bonauto was one of the lawyers who worked on the Baker vs. Vermont case in the late 1990s that led to the state's civil union law by the Legislature. She is also challenging part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law defining marriage as between one man and one woman, in court.
"I'm looking at this period as the same as any civil rights battle … there are victories and there are setbacks," she said. "But what we can do is make sure that the lawmakers who support us are re-elected and that people who have questions about same-sex marriage get the information they need."
The court battle in California over citizens' recent vote to uphold the state's ban on same-sex marriage has been getting lots of attention. Turner said it is a "myth" that Vermont's same-sex marriage law could be overturned if the California case goes before the U.S. Supreme Court and they reject the idea of same-sex marriage.
That case is narrowly focused on what the U.S. Constitution says about marriage as a right for two adults, she explained, and even if the ruling came back against same-sex marriages, the initiatives on the state level would still stand.
"It would not take away any rights in states like Vermont who have taken steps to recognize same-sex marriages," she said. "Even after a ruling like that, a Legislature or a state court would be absolutely free to make further judgments."
As a lawyer, Bonauto said she would not have pursued the California case, although she notes that the plaintiffs' two attorneys – Theodore Olson and David Boies (the two attorneys who faced off in the 2000 Bush vs. Gore ruling) – are very talented.
"I really do believe that what we need to do is give people information," Bonauto said. "Information can change people's minds."
All Thursday events will be held at the Vermont Law School in South Royalton
4 p.m.: "Careful with that Gun: The New Arguments Against Marriage Equality" with Andrew Koppelman at the Chase Center
6 p.m.: Opening reception in Yates Common Room
All events on Friday will occur on the UVM campus in Burlington
9 a.m.: "International Comparisons" with Paul Deslandes, Ellen Ann Andersen, Nicola Barker, Robert Leckey, Graeme Reid at Old Mill in the John Dewy Lounge
11:30 a.m.: Lunch conversation on the Baker v. State decision with Jackie Gardina, Mary Bonauto and Rep. William Lippert in the Marsh Lounge
1:15 p.m.: National Views with Koppelman, Bonauto, Mary Anne Case, Ilona Turner, Adele Morrison in the North Lounge of the Billings building
3:30 p.m.: "The View from New England" with Greg Johnson, Gil Kujovich, David Moats, Lee Swislow, Heather White in the North Lounge of Billings
5:15 p.m.: Closing reception in the Billings Apse