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Vermont civil unions bill signed into law

Updated:
Gay couples will receive most benefits of marriage

MONTPELIER, Vt. - Gov. Howard Dean signed a first-in-the-nation law Wednesday granting gay couples nearly all of the benefits of marriage.

"I think it is a courageous and powerful statement about who we are in the state of Vermont," said Mr. Dean, a Democrat. "I also believe that this legislation speaks to the heart of this state and certainly to my heart."

The legislation creating marriage-like "civil unions" reached the governor's desk shortly before lunch time, just a day after the House gave its final approval. And by the time of a 2 p.m. news conference, he had already signed it out of view of TV cameras, photographers and reporters.

Mr. Dean said he signed the bill privately because he did not want the ceremony to be a triumphal party by supporters of the law. Instead, he said, it was time for the state to begin healing.

"In politics, bill-signings are triumphal," he said. "They represent overcoming of one side over another. These celebrations, as the subject of the matter of the bill, will be private."

The law will allow gay couples to form civil unions beginning July 1. That will entitle them to all of the 300 or so rights and responsibilities available to married couples under Vermont law in such areas as taxes, inheritance and medical decision-making.

Other states will probably not recognize Vermont civil unions, and such status will not entitle gay couples to any of the benefits available to married couples under federal law in areas such as taxes and immigration.

Nevertheless, no state has gone further than Vermont in giving gay couples something approximating marriage.

The bill came about after the Vermont Supreme Court unanimously ruled in December that gay couples were being unconstitutionally denied the benefits of marriage. The court left it up to the Legislature to decide whether to let gays marry or to create some kind of domestic partnership.

The legislation passed after strong debate in which opponents argued that homosexuality is "against natural law." Opponents have warned that they will make their anger known at the polls in November when members of the Legislature are up for re-election.

Some lawmakers deeply involved in the issue said they were disappointed there was no bill-signing ceremony.

"I think the story needs to be that gay and lesbian couples in Vermont had a historical day," said Democratic Rep. William Lippert, the Legislature's only openly gay member.
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