After two days of tense debate, the Vermont House approved a controversial plan March 16 to offer civil unions to homosexual couples. The 76-69 vote has set the stage for a contentious showdown in the state Senate. Critics of the decision say civil unions that include marriage-like licenses and formal ceremonies before a justice of the peace or clergy are just a small step away from legalizing same-sex marriages."If the civil union bill be comes law, it will effectively place people of faith who believe in biblical morality outside the law," says Robert H. Knight, senior director of cultural studies at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. "It will ensure that businessmen will be forced to subsidize homosexuality or face legal sanctions. It will ensure that children will be taught in Vermont's schools that marriage is no longer the place to channel sexuality and that other outlets are just as legitimate."Yet lawmakers view their actions as defending traditional marriage by treating the legislation as a civil-rights issue. An amendment to the bill defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman."A core, fundamental value belief that I have is that all people are equal in the eyes of God, and all people are certainly equal in the eyes of the Vermont Constitution," Governor Howard Dean told the (Barre/Montpelier) Times Argus. "I fundamentally believe … that no group of Vermonters shall have more benefits or less benefits than anyone else.""Love thy neighbor as thyself," William Lippert, the only openly gay lawmaker in Vermont, told his colleagues, according to the Burlington Free Press. "We are your neighbors. We are worth loving."At the Vermont Town Meeting Day on March 7, residents in 50 towns voted 3-1 against same-sex marriages. In all but four of those towns, voters also turned back "domestic partnership" proposals that would pave the way for an array of legal and insurance benefits for any unmarried couples."I've always been concerned about threats that attack marriage," says George Schiavone, a state legislator from Shelburne. "Clearly, a majority of Vermonters want somebody to speak up on this issue."Critics say the measure will damage the state's economy, which depends largely on tourism."The family-friendly image of Vermont will be destroyed and the state will become a gay Mecca," says Craig Bensen, pastor of Cambridge (Vt.) United Church and vice president of Take It to the People, a group that supports traditional marriage. Defenders of traditional marriage in Vermont acknowledge they are part of a larger, national fight.California voted last month to uphold traditional marriage, which means if Vermont ever legalizes same-sex marriages, they would not be recognized in California (CT, April 3, p. 19).Vermont's Senate is expected to consider the civil-unions bill before the end of April.The sharply contested issue arose in 1997 after two lesbian couples and one male couple sued the Vermont Supreme Court after their town clerks refused their requests for marriage licenses.In a December 1999 ruling, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the state's ban on same-sex unions was discriminatory, and that ruling led to legislative action.

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