While the court's decision will have limited impact beyond the state's borders, it will have only practical implications for gays and lesbians in Vermont. That, says Cloud, is precisely the problem. "If the point of gay marriage is largely symbolic and I think it is then it's crucial for the state to say to gay and lesbian couples: Your relationship is deserving of the same respect and dignity as straight relationships." Vermont's Supreme Court, adds Cloud, walked away from the chance to make a landmark decision by declaring that the state must recognize gay unions.
While both Democratic presidential candidates support providing legal protection to same-sex partners, neither Gore nor Bradley will go so far as to approve of gay marriage. And throughout the country, Cloud says, the issue serves as "a stopping point for many middle-of-the-road Democrats." Americans' ambivalence over gay marriage is evidence in the Defense of Marriage Act, approved by Congress after Hawaii's 1993 preliminary move to ratify same-sex marriage. The act precludes the federal recognition of gay and lesbian unions, and allows individual states to ignore any of their neighboring states' more liberal laws. For example, if Vermont's legislature were to formally recognize gay marriages, a gay couple from New York who got married in Vermont would not be legally "married" when they went home to New York. Despite its less-than-spectacular implications, the Vermont ruling's not all bad news for gay activists: While the Vermont legislature may not be ready to make marriage available to everyone, Monday's Supreme Court ruling demands they at least cement a wide range of civil rights for gay and lesbian partners, and that decision cannot be reversed even by the U.S. Supreme Court.