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Vt. Committee Backs Gay Benefits

February 9, 2000

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) _ A key committee of the Vermont House voted Wednesday in favor of developing a broad domestic partnership system for gay and lesbian couples instead of broadening marriage statutes.

The House Judiciary Committee’s vote _ eight for the domestic partnership system; three for legalizing gay marriage _ decided the focus of the bill. Committee members began writing it Wednesday and will vote on it later.

If approved by the legislature and enacted, the proposal would require Vermont to provide more rights and benefits to gay and lesbian couples than any other state.

``This is a momentous vote,″ Gov. Howard Dean said. ``It’s a vote to move forward and become the first state to really grant equal rights″ to lesbians and gays.

Committee Chairman Thomas Little repeatedly said the committee would work on a civil rights bill, something that would be ``different than, broader than″ domestic partnership plans that have been discussed.

The Legislature has been grappling with how to respond to a state Supreme Court ruling that said gay and lesbian couples are being unconstitutionally denied the rights and benefits that accompany legal marriage.

The court said the Legislature could rectify that by expanding marriage or creating a parallel domestic partnership system.

The first draft of the domestic partnership bill discussed Wednesday would give gay and lesbian couples all the legal rights and responsibilities heterosexual married couples receive, including inheritance rights, tax privileges and the authority to make medical decisions for a partner.

Republican Rep. Michael Kainen of Hartford said many committee members voted for the domestic partnership system rather than legalizing gay marriage because they believe it has a better chance of passing.

The Judiciary Committee has held two public hearings attended by a total of more than 5,000 people and has heard a month of testimony from religious and legal experts.

Democratic Rep. William Lippert, the only openly gay member of the committee or the Legislature, said Wednesday he believed broadening marriage statutes to include gays and lesbians would be a major move toward ending discrimination. He voted for legalizing gay marriage.

``I trust whatever next step we take collectively, we take in a continual step to dismantle institutional discrimination,″ Lippert said.

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