The veto of Governor Jim Douglas was predicted to stand, but both houses of the Vermont state legislature defied expectations and voted this morning to override, enacting the bill they had previously passed into law, legally recognizing same-sex marriages. This is a wonderful surprise, the kind of news that strengthens my faith in democracy and humanity in general.
The vote in the state senate was overwhelming, 23-5 in favor of overriding the veto. In the house it was closer, 100-49, a hundred votes being the minimum needed to override. But regardless of how close it was, the result is a momentous day in the history of the United States. Vermont is now the fourth state to legalize gay marriage, but the first to legalize it via the legislature. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Iowa all recognize same-sex marriages as well, but that recognition came as a result of a court decision — Iowa’s coming in just the last several days. In Vermont it didn’t take the judiciary throwing out a discriminatory law or constitutional measure; it took the freely elected representatives of the people doing what was right.
That’s a big deal. It forces opponents of gay equality to adjust their arguments somewhat. The loudest bat in their line-up before today was the fact that same-sex marriage had not found significant support in state legislatures. Just the opposite is true — more than half the states in the union have passed amendments to their constitutions specifically outlawing same-sex marriage. Before Vermont, gay couples had only gained legal status for their marriages through the courts, allowing opponents to argue that gay equality was being imposed on an unwilling public by an activist judiciary. If the courageous action taken by the Vermont legislature encourages others to take up the issue, then places where same-sex marriage has not yet been settled definitively — like my home state of Maryland — could see the rights of their gay citizens affirmed as well, and by democratic means, not through the courts.
I don’t mean to disparage the courts that have recognized same-sex marriage. The destination is more important than the route, in this case. And, as Andrew Sullivan writes, commenting on the recent Iowa decision, striking down laws which seek to write bigotry into the state code is not just an appropriate role for the court — it’s the court’s highest possible duty.
But obviously, I’d rather see gay marriage legalized via votes than verdicts. If we leave it to the courts, then the courts must act — but why must we leave it to them? We should vote to legalize same-sex marriage because it’s the right thing to do, because there is no reason not to, because it is immoral to do otherwise. This is not a religious issue. This is not a political issue. To oppose legalization of same-sex marriage is to stand up for bigotry. The dogma that leads you to your opposition is irrelevant. The religion that claims to justify it is inapplicable. We call ourselves a free country, but until the unions of same-sex couples are recognized as identical to those of heterosexual couples under the law, that’s only an aspiration, not a fact. We must legalize same-sex marriage, not just in Vermont but in every other square inch of the United States, if we ever want to truly be the nation we have always hoped to be.