BY JOHN FLOWERS
MONTPELIER — Addison County and Brandon’s two state senators voted with the majority of their colleagues on Monday in endorsing a same-sex marriage bill that has now moved to the House Judiciary Committee.
Sens. Claire Ayer of Weybridge and Harold Giard of Bridport, both Democrats, cited the state Constitution’s guarantee of equal rights to Vermonters as among their primary reasons for endorsing S.115, which easily passed the Senate by a 26-4 margin.
The vote was preceded by an impassioned debate that saw supporters and opponents cite their reasons — ranging from religious beliefs to human rights — why they believed the same-sex bill should pass or fail.
“That debate, in my almost seven sessions here in the Senate, was the best I have ever heard,” Ayer said of the discussion, which she said covered all angles of the same-sex marriage debate. “It was so thoughtful.”
The measure now moves on to the House. Gov. James Douglas, a Middlebury Republican, announced on Wednesday afternoon that he would veto the gay marriage bill if it makes it to his desk. That means the Legislature would have to override his veto if Vermont is to join Massachusetts and Connecticut as the only states in the country to offer full marriage to citizens of the same gender.
“In the end, it came down to equality under the law — an American concept,” Ayer said in explaining her vote. “I felt good about being part of the decision.”
Giard, too, cited equality — as well as the Vermont Supreme Court “Baker” decision that led to Vermont’s civil union law — as his reason for voting for S.115.
“In the end, some of us in making our decision turned to the state Constitution,” said Giard. “In the end, that’s how I voted.”
But prior to that final vote, Giard had supported an amendment offered by Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, that would have solicited more public opinion on same-sex marriage through a non-binding, statewide referendum on Town Meeting Day 2010. That amendment was defeated by a 19-11 tally on Monday.
Giard said he listened to a lot of public feedback on the topic through phone calls, e-mail, letters and face-to-face conversations with constituents. In the end, he said he knew his vote would end up displeasing some in what has been a controversial debate.
“It was ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t,’” Giard said.
Some Addison County residents got a last chance at Monday morning’s legislative breakfast in Vergennes to try to influence their senators on the same-sex marriage bill. Several residents urged lawmakers to either postpone the vote or reject the measure outright.
Waltham resident David Brooks was among those who said the issue should be put to a statewide referendum.
“To me, it’s somewhat controversial,” Brooks said. “At least (a non-bonding referendum) gives the people of Vermont a chance to voice their opinion. This (bill) is being so fast-tracked, and the people for it have got such a national organization, with money.”
Donna Scott of Vergennes declared her opposition to the same-sex marriage bill.
“I have been a teacher in the public school system for over 25 years, and I have seen the effect that promoting homosexual lifestyle has had on our children in the name of diversity,” Scott said. “We have had activities in the high school that have been little more than showing gay sexual practices and having speakers come to speak for those things, trying to establish gay-straight alliances in the schools — and this is without the freedom-to-marry act.”
Pat Brooks of Waltham urged legislators to defeat the same-sex marriage bill.
“To redefine marriage is not an equal rights issue,” she said. “If marriage between a man and a woman is not deeply rooted in this country, then what is?”
Vergennes Resident Martin Casey said he was concerned that lawmakers are engaging in a “headlong race into social legislation … when there is a vast and great need for attention to the state’s fiscal situation. We seem to be ignoring that in favor of a very rapid progress of this freedom-to-marry law.”
Local lawmakers disputed the contention by some that they were working on same-sex marriage legislation to the exclusion of the rest of the state’s business.
“There are 180 legislators in the building and we have 27 standing committees,” Ayer said. “At any time, those committees are dealing with two or three different issues.
“The overriding important priorities in all of our committees… are jobs and the economy,” she added. “We have plenty of time to do other pieces of legislation.”
Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes, served notice that he will support an amendment effort on the House floor to put the same-sex marriage issue to a statewide referendum.
“We have a precedent already for a referendum when we were talking about the Vermont Lottery,” said Clark, who added his constituents are split roughly 50-50 on the issue of gay marriage. “It seems to me that this is at least as important an issue as that.”
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, is a senior member of the House Judiciary and a sponsor of a House version of the same-sex marriage bill. He said Vermonters have been expressing their feelings on same-sex marriage for the past several months — through a legislative summer study committee and through testimony at the Statehouse. He said more than 1,000 people packed the Statehouse on March 18 to deliver testimony to a joint hearing of the House an Senate Judiciary Committees.
“It really was a great evening for democracy,” Jewett said, calling the constituent contact a “Vermont-style” referendum.
“We’re listening carefully to both sides of the argument,” Jewett said. “Here in Vermont, your Legislature is closer to you than anywhere else in the country.”