Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiffs, three same-sex couples who have lived in committed relationships for significant periods, brought suit seeking judgment that a statute disallowing same sex marriage was unconstitutional under state law and the state constitution.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. A law that prohibited same-sex couples from receiving the same benefits and protections that married opposite-sex couples received violated the Vermont Constitution.
Issue. May the State of Vermont exclude same-sex couples from the benefits and protections that its laws provide to married couples under the Vermont Constitution?
Held. The State is constitutionally required to extend to same-sex couples the same benefits and protections that flow from marriage under Vermont law.
The State claims that under statutory construction, marriage means the union of a man and a woman as husband and wife. Further evidence of the intent of State law flow from consanguinity statutes, annulment statutes, and other statutes related to marriage. Plaintiffs claim that the underlying purpose of marriage is to protect and encourage the union of committed couples. However, it is not clear that limiting marriages to opposite-sex couples violates the intent and spirit of the Legislature.
Plaintiffs claim that the statute violates Chapter I, Article 7 of the Vermont Constitution by not permitting the common benefit and protection of the law for same-sex couples. The State first maintains that the statute is valid because it supports the link between marriage, procreation, and child rearing. However, many opposite-sex couples marry for reasons unrelated to procreation, and a significant number of children today are raised by same-sex parents.
The State also argues that opposite-sex partners offer advantages in child rearing. However, the Vermont Legislature has supported the rights of same-sex parents through several other statutes. The State’s claims that such marriages may result in marriages of convenience or otherwise affect the institution in unpredictable ways are simply forecasts that do not provide a reasonable and just basis for statutory exclusion. The State’s claim that a long history of official intolerance to same-sex relationships does not support a finding of constitutional protection is also unfounded. More recent regulation undermines the contention, and even if true history cannot provide a legitimate basis for continued unequal application of the law.
Because the State’s claim that overturning the law would result in destabilization is plausible, the current statutory scheme will remain in effect for a reasonable time until the Legislature can enact new legislation.
Discussion. While the Court found the law in violation of the Vermont Constitution, it did not find that marriage licenses for same-sex couples were required. Rather, the same common benefits and protections could be extended to same-sex couples in a variety of ways.