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Civil Union  
 
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The lesbian and gay civil rights movement entered a new era on July 1, 2000. On that day Vermont's civil union law took effect, and for the first time ever in the United States same-sex couples became eligible for all the rights, benefits, and responsibilities of marriage.

In 2009, the civil union law was superseded by a law that permitted gay and lesbian couples to marry.

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The Law

The civil union law was passed in response to the Vermont Supreme Court's decision in Baker v. State (1999). The court in that case found in favor of six same-sex couples suing for the right to marry, but it stopped short of requiring the state to issue them marriage licenses. Instead, the court directed the Vermont Legislature to craft a constitutionally acceptable solution, and allowed it to adopt an "alternative legal status to marriage." That is what the legislature did in creating the parallel system of civil union.

The civil union law directly tracked the marriage law in every respect. The registration process with the town clerk was the same for civil union as it was for marriage.

Under the law, parties to a civil union are responsible for the support of one another "to the same degree and in the same manner as prescribed under law for married persons" (Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 15, § 1204[c]). A party to a civil union is included in "any definition or use of the terms 'spouse,' 'family,' 'immediate family,' 'dependent,' 'next of kin,' and other terms that denote the spousal relationship, as those terms are used throughout the law" (Id. at § 1204[b]).

The same law of "annulment, separation and divorce, child custody and support, and property division and maintenance" applies to marriage and civil union (Id. at § 1204[d]). To dissolve a civil union, couples must go to family court, just as with marriage, and are subject to the "same substantive rights and obligations that are involved in the dissolution of marriage" (Id. at § 1206).

In addition to granting all the rights and responsibilities of marriage to same-sex couples, the legislature also had uplifting things to say about lesbians and gays in the Legislative Findings to the law. The legislature found, for example, that "[d]espite longstanding social and economic discrimination, many gay and lesbian Vermonters have formed lasting, committed, caring and faithful relationships with persons of their same sex. These couples live together, participate in their communities together, and some raise children and care for family members together, just as do couples who are married under Vermont law."

Governor Howard Dean signed the landmark law one day after the legislature passed it, in a closed-door session from which the media was barred.

Couples Joined in Civil Union

In the first three years the law was in effect, 5,671 same-sex couples joined in civil union. Of these, only 840 were from Vermont, with 4,831 coming from elsewhere. Lesbian and gay couples came to Vermont from 48 other states and from over a dozen other countries for their civil union. The only state not then represented was North Dakota.

After Vermont, the largest number of registrants were from New York, Massachusetts, California, and Florida. Couples also came from other countries such as Canada, England, Venezuela, Mexico, the Philippines, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, India, and Guatemala.

Recognition of Civil Unions outside Vermont

When lesbian and gay couples from outside of Vermont returned to their home states, the status of their civil union was uncertain. The general rule is a marriage performed in one state will be recognized in other states, absent a "strong public policy" against recognition (Restatement, Second, Conflict of Laws § 283 [1971]).

The so-called "Defense of Marriage" Acts, which have been passed in 37 states, may be used by courts as evidence of a strong public policy against recognizing a civil union for marital benefits. These Acts commonly use language akin to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the recognition of same-sex marriage or any "relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws" of any state (28 U.S.C. § 1738C).

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