The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Celebrates Five Years of Civil Unions in Vermont

December 20, 2004

Roberta Sklar, Director of Communications

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Celebrates Five Years of Civil Unions in Vermont
On December 20, 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court ordered the legislature "to assign to same-sex couples the common benefits and protections that flow from marriage under Vermont law." That decision led to the creation of "civil unions."

Statement from Matt Foreman, Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, on the fifth anniversary of the Vermont Supreme Court's decision.

"Five years ago, the Supreme Court of Vermont made a simple but revolutionary ruling that same-sex couples should have the same rights of marriage as heterosexual couples. Conservatives called the decision 'worse than terrorism,' and sounded alarms about the rending of the moral fabric of society and destruction of the institution of marriage. Vermont Representative George Allard intoned, 'This is a sad, dark day for the state of Vermont, and may God help us all.' The following election year, after a virulent national backlash campaign, seventeen Vermont lawmakers who supported civil unions lost their seats. The newly-elected Republican majority in the House attempted to impeach the Vermont Supreme Court and overturn the civil unions law. But, ultimately the right-wing's vicious campaign to 'Take Back Vermont' failed, and civil unions remained in effect.

Today, so much has changed. Now, over 60% of Americans support civil unions or civil marriage for same-sex couples. Civil union has become the fall-back position of many who are opposed to same-sex marriage. Vermont Democrats regained substantial majorities in both houses of the legislature in 2004. Heterosexual marriage continues to do well in the state with Vermont having one of the lowest divorce rates in the country. And, not a single legislator in neighboring Massachusetts who voted for marriage equality earlier this year lost his or her seat in November.

While the intense backlash over same-sex unions in Vermont was shallow and short-lived, the positive effects for couples in civil unions have been lasting. Hundreds of Vermont families are better off for having equal rights with married couples, including the rights to family medical benefits, file joint income taxes, visit their loved ones in the hospital, and make inheritance decisions. We celebrate the nearly 7,000 pioneering couples from around the country that have affirmed their commitments in Vermont. And we salute the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, the plaintiffs and their attorneys from GLAD and Langrock, Sperry, & Wool who argued the case, and the justices, legislators, and governor who put their careers on the line to win these rights. When, at last, every state in the union recognizes the right of same-sex couples to marry, let it be remembered that the people of Vermont took the first, brave step toward equality."

Founded in 1973, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Foundation (the Task Force) was the first national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights and advocacy organization and remains the movement's leading voice for freedom, justice, and equality. We work to build the grassroots political strength of our community by training state and local activists and leaders, working to strengthen the infrastructure of state and local allies, and organizing broad-based campaigns to build public support for complete equality for LGBT people. Our Policy Institute, the community's premiere think tank, provides research and policy analysis to support the struggle for complete equality. As part of a broader social justice movement, we work to create a world that respects and makes visible the diversity of human expression and identity where all people may fully participate in society. Headquartered in Washington, DC, we also have offices in New York City, Los Angeles, and Cambridge. The Task Force is a 501(c)(3) corporation incorporated in Washington, DC. Contributions to the Task Force are tax-deductible to the full extent allowed by law.

More on Vermont Civil Unions

December 20, 1999 - The Vermont Supreme Court ruled on legal recognition of same-sex unions. The Court decided same-sex couples should have access to the rights of marriage, but left it to the legislature to decide whether these rights would come under the title of 'marriage' or in a separate arrangement. After a fierce legislative battle, the General Assembly passed the civil union's bill on April 26, 2000, and Governor Howard Dean immediately signed it into law.

July 1, 2000 - Vermont issued the first civil unions.

Backlash from the ruling, during the bill's debate, and after the law was passed was strong. Lowlights from the comments made by conservatives included:

Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer, on December 20, 1999, called the decision "an unmitigated disaster for the American family."

Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes accused legislators of being controlled by the "homosexual agenda" and stated that this ruling would destroy the moral fabric of society and the institution of marriage.

An organization called 'Who Would Have Thought, Inc' placed ads in Vermont newspapers during March of 2000, suggesting Governor Howard Dean and other pro-civil union politicians supported pedophilia, providing contraceptives to children, and public funding of artificial insemination for lesbians.

Highlights came from openly gay Vermont Representative Bill Lippert in his speech on the House floor:

"Our lives, in the midst of historical prejudice and discrimination, are, in my view, in some way miracles. The goodness of gay and lesbian people is a triumph against discrimination and prejudice."

Representative Robert Kinsey, a Republican, followed Representative Lippert, saying, "I just heard the greatest speech I've heard in my 30 years, and that's why I'm glad to be a friend of the member from Hinesburg and that's why I'm glad to be on his side."

Political Consequences in the 2000 elections

Seventeen (17) Civil Union supporters lost their seats, shifting the House to Republicans.

Governor Howard Dean narrowly won reelection with 50.450% of the vote. If he had failed to receive over 50% of the vote, the election would have been thrown to the General Assembly.

Despite the Backlash, Vermonters Have Become Accustomed to Civil Unions

In 2004, Vermont Democrats recaptured the House, gaining 14 seats for an 83-60 majority. In the Senate, Democrats picked up two seats to widen their margin to 21-9.

The majority of Vermonters, having lived with civil unions for same-sex couples for four years, now support some form of legal family recognition for same sex couples.

An Associated Press exit poll in 2000 found respondents split 49 percent to 49 percent on civil unions. In a 2004 exit poll that gave respondents a choice between marriage, civil union, and no legal recognition for same-sex couples, 40 percent said they supported marriage, 37 percent civil unions, and 21 percent no legal recognition.

Despite dire predictions, the moral fabric of Vermont appears to be intact. Vermont continues to have one of the lowest divorce rates, and the lowest teen pregnancy rate in the country.


The mission of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is to build the political power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community from the ground up. We do this by training activists, organizing broad-based campaigns to defeat anti-LGBT referenda and advance pro-LGBT legislation, and by building the organizational capacity of our movement. Our Policy Institute, the movement’s premier think tank, provides research and policy analysis to support the struggle for complete equality and to counter right-wing lies. As part of a broader social justice movement, we work to create a nation that respects the diversity of human expression and identity and creates opportunity for all. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., we also have offices in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and Cambridge.