On March 1, 2000. the House Judiciary Committee of the
Vermont Legislature endorsed a bill to create two new procedures in the state designed to
give legal protections to some segments of the adult population. While the intent of the
bill is good, the overall framework is discriminatory and unfair to those who are
portion of H-847 would allow two people of the same sex to entered into a "civil
union" and thereby gain all of the protections and benefits associated with marriage
under state law. Blood relatives and heterosexual unmarried partners would not be
allowed to participate in this new secular institution. Civil unions would be the exclusive
territory of gay and lesbian relationships.
The bill would also create another new legal
structure for "reciprocal beneficiaries." Persons who register under this
procedure would be given a few legal protections to safeguard their rights in case of a
serious illness or death. Only close blood relatives would be eligible for these
safeguards. A senior citizen would not be able to name an unmarried partner or even
a close friend or neighbor as a beneficiary.
The bill, which was narrowly approved by the Ways
and Means Committee on a 5 to 4 vote, is supposed to end discrimination. However, its
eligibility rules are illogical and unfair.
While it appears that a majority of people in
Vermont may favor limiting "marriage" to opposite-sex couples, there is nothing
to indicate that most people would support the creation of new government programs
that exclude large segments of the population from eligibility.
Many public and private employers, including the
State of Vermont and some of its cities, have already initiated some limited reform to
protect the rights of unmarried couples. These domestic partner benefits programs are not
restricted to Vermont. Several dozen cities in the nation, a few states, and thousands of
private employers currently give benefits to employees with domestic partners. Some cities
have local registries where these couples can declare their family status and gain certain
rights, such as hospital visitation access.
The majority of these laws and programs, including
all of them in Vermont, apply equally to same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Why should the
Legislature break with this tradition of inclusion and create a new registration system
that excludes the majority of domestic partners? After all, two-thirds of unmarried
couples are heterosexual.
Many adults have
chosen domestic partnership rather than formal marriage for a variety of economic,
religious, political, philosophical, or personal reasons. They have agreed to assume
obligations to each other as a "family" but they just do not want the
"marriage" label. Should these folks be punished and denied legal protections
for making this choice?
Some heterosexual seniors fall into this
category. They want domestic partnership rather than marriage for valid reasons. The
American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in California has lobbied for domestic
partnership legislation for several years. Seniors were included in the domestic
partnership bills signed into law in California last year. The national AARP has
recognized the desire of some seniors for this alternative to marriage and therefore began
to offer gender-neutral domestic partner benefits to its own employees.
When I testified before the House Judiciary
Committee in Vermont last month, I mentioned that some current domestic partner
legislation (such as bills pending in California and Florida) include unmarried blood
relatives and heterosexual couples in their provisions. I suggested that Vermont might
want to pass a super-inclusive domestic partnership law which would allow same-sex
couples, heterosexual couples, and unmarried blood relatives all to participate equally.
That suggestion was ignored. On March 1, the
Judiciary Committee voted in favor of H-847 and two days later a fiscal committee moved it
to the House floor. As currently written, the bill totally excludes seniors who are
living with a person of the opposite sex in an unmarried family relationship.
The "civil union" portion of the
bill gives all rights and obligations of marriage (only under state law) to same-sex
couples who participate in a state-sanctioned ceremony. They would not be considered
married under federal law. Some seniors in Vermont may want these state-law protections
for their opposite-sex relationship but still be considered unmarried for purposes of
federal law. As a result, they would not suffer any "marriage penalty" under
social security law, pension survivor programs, etc.
The "reciprocal beneficiary"
portion of the bill would confer a more limited number of legal protections to registrants
in case of a serious illness or death, but only to close blood relatives. Some seniors in
Vermont might like to designate someone other than a blood relative such as their
domestic partner or close friend or neighbor to be their "reciprocal
beneficiary." Some younger people, such as those with HIV or AIDS, who do not want to
marry or create a "civil union" for fear of losing some government financial
assistance if they do, would also benefit if they could participate in the
"reciprocal beneficiary" law. A marriage or civil union would make them
financially ineligible for some programs.
Why would the Legislature insist on excluding
opposite-sex couples from the "civil union" law, especially since the parties
must assume all of the state-law obligations of marriage if they participate in this new
secular institution? What possible reason could there be to limit "reciprocal
beneficiary" protections to blood relatives when other worthy citizens could use the
The definition of "marriage"
historically has been restricted. While the gender restriction could be removed, it
appears that most Vermonters are not ready to make that change at least not yet.
But the two legal institutions created by
H-847 are totally new. They have no history or tradition of exclusion. The only sensible
and fair approach would be to allow any two unmarried adults to enter into a
"civil union" or a "reciprocal beneficiary" relationship. Why not
respect freedom of choice?
Or are lawmakers going to put everyone in
neat little categories? One box for heterosexuals (marriage). Another box for homosexuals
(civil union). And a third box for blood relatives (reciprocal beneficiary). Nice little
bundles of discrimination.
Thomas F. Coleman is executive
director of the American Association for Single People. AASP promotes the well being and
human rights of all unmarried adults. It has members in 29 states, including