Vermont gay marriage bill pros louder than cons

by John Curran
Friday Mar 13, 2009

One side has hired a lobbyist, aired TV and radio advertisements, and staged a series of public events in hopes of getting its message out.

The other has yet to hit the airwaves, hold a news conference or make a major public push beyond appealing for support on its own Web sites.

With Vermont lawmakers poised to begin a week’s worth of hearings on a bill that would legalize gay marriage, groups in favor of the idea have been maintaining a higher profile than those opposed to it.

"Something will happen," said the Rev. Craig Bensen, president of Take It to The People, a group that opposes same-sex marriage. "We’ll be there for the hearings."

In 2000, Vermont was the first state in the nation to adopt civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, and now a push is on to legalize gay marriage. Supporters say gay marriage would give couples the right to legally wed, qualify as spouses for insurance purposes and health care decision-making, and allow survivors to obtain Social Security benefits that those in civil unions don’t have.

State Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith say they hope to pass a gay marriage bill this legislative session.

Monday, the state Senate Judiciary Committee will take up the bill, hearing testimony about equality issues, other states that have enacted civil unions or gay marriage and the conclusions of a 2008 study by the Vermont Commission on Family Recognition and Protection. Wednesday, the Legislature’s two judiciary committees will host a 6 p.m. public hearing on the bill.

Before the hearings, it’s been a one-sided discourse.

The Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force has hired the Montpelier lobbying firm of Kimbell, Sherman & Ellis, and began airing TV commercials March 5 that feature couples talking about marriage equality.

It has held news events all week: Tuesday, it was mental health and human service organizations saying children of lesbian and gay parents are as likely as those of heterosexual parents to flourish. Wednesday, it was 181 members of the Vermont clergy vowing their support for the right of same-sex couples to participate in civil marriage. Today, representatives of more than 250 Vermont lawyers are to announce their support.

By contrast, neither Take It to The People nor Vermont Renewal, a Rutland-based opponent of same-sex marriage, has held a public event or aired a single commercial.

"Our whole strategy has to do with the citizens of Vermont, and not outside money and providing political pressure on Vermont," said Stephen Cable, president of Vermont Renewal, which plans a "Marriage Day at the Statehouse" event Monday.

Cable, who will testify before lawmakers, said Thursday he’s yet to do any lobbying on the bill.

But lawyer Beth Robinson, who chairs the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, said she doesn’t believe opponents are sitting this one out.

"I’m quite sure we’ll see a vocal opposition once the debate unfolds," she said Thursday.

Bensen said his group, which wants a nonbinding statewide referendum on the issue, is raising money and plans to advertise, but won’t spend as much as Vermont Freedom to Marry.

Robinson wouldn’t say how much her group has spent or plans to spend. Under state lobbyist disclosure laws, it will have to do so by April 25 for the period Jan. 1 to March 31.

Bensen said gay marriage opponents are raising money.

"When we did this in 2000, we got outspent all over the place. What we have to offer is grass roots," he said.

He called the Legislature’s hearings "a road show" purposely timed between legislative elections and after Town Meeting Day so that lawmakers wouldn’t have to answer questions about it when they went home for the two-week break.

State Sen. Richard Sears, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the debate will be emotional.

"All I’ll say is that anyone who thinks this is not going to be contentious, that this is a slam dunk, they’re sadly mistaken. It’s not going to be a slam dunk," said Sears, D-Bennington.

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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