A Halfway Win For Gay Couples

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Four years ago, a group of lesbian and gay Vermonters got together in the basement of an Episcopal church to plot the redefinition of marriage. Among them were a nurse, a few lawyers and a pair of Christmas-tree farmers. They thought the state should treat their relationships no differently from those of heterosexuals, and they eventually brought a lawsuit.

Last week the Vermont Supreme Court agreed with them, sort of. The court ruled, as no appellate court ever had, that gay couples have a right to the same benefits as heterosexual couples--with one monumentally symbolic exception. Same-sex couples still cannot obtain a marriage license.

Instead the court told the legislature to decide how best to extend to gays the perks married people enjoy, such as state tax breaks. It gave lawmakers the option to grant gays marriage licenses, but didn't require that step. The Governor is leaning toward a less controversial alternative: authorization of the arrangement known antiseptically as domestic partnership.

If the state takes that route, the lawyers who initiated last week's case will go back to the state supreme court to argue that domestic partnerships are a separate-but-equal injustice. However, if Vermont decides to allow full marriage rights, gay activists will have a platform from which to challenge the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law banning federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

Nationally, combatants now focus on California, which will hold a referendum on marriage March 7. Robert Glazier, spokesman for the side that opposes gay marriage, says he wants Californians to ensure that "five people in black robes in Vermont don't make this decision for us."