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The lessons of Vermont may help in Massachusetts

AS THE COMMONWEALTH wades into the volatile politics of gay marriage, the people of Massachusetts ought to prepare themselves for a political furor unlike anything they have experienced before. But if Vermont's experience four years ago can serve as an example, the state has a chance to grow, learn, and establish new standards of equality and understanding.

The shock waves Massachusetts is experiencing as a result of the ruling in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health cannot be more extreme than the shock of Baker v. Vermont. That was the case in which the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that gay and lesbian couples could no longer be excluded from the rights and benefits of marriage.

The Baker decision came down in December 1999; during the following year the state was consumed by the most bitterly contested controversy that anyone could remember. The result was Vermont's civil union law, passed by the Legislature in April 2000 and signed by Governor Howard Dean.

Vermont got through it, and for the most part Vermonters are at peace with the result. The experience contained some important lessons that may shed light on how the people of Massachusetts may view the controversy before them.

First, there is no running away from the issue. There has been talk of a constitutional amendment to negate the effect of the court's ruling, but that talk does not negate the fact that marriage for gays and lesbians will be a reality 180 days after the court's ruling.

Legislative leaders in Vermont understood that to delay action would be to prolong the agony and intensify the controversy. As a result the House Judiciary Committee cleared its calendar of all other business until it had passed a bill. When Senate leaders tried to persuade Dean to delay action, he insisted that they go ahead. The Legislature dived in and got it over with, and the legislative leadership had few regrets.

Second, the issue of marriage is volatile because it touches our deepest passions and most powerful moral convictions. But the emotion surrounding the issue does not prevent political leaders from proceeding in a respectful manner, leading a political dialogue that gives everyone his or her say and allows for constructive democratic action.

Third, a respectful dialogue requires parties on both sides to recognize the humanity of the other. Vermont legislators in 2000 were subject to relentless, vicious attacks as they worked on the civil unions bill. But opposition did not equal bigotry. Most opponents were decent people drawing guidance from the legitimate moral teachings of their churches and trying to do the right thing. At the same time, support for civil unions came from decent people, gay and straight, who were following their own moral understanding in seeking to broaden the arena of freedom for gays and lesbians in Vermont.

Fourth, debate is not harmful. Chief Justice Jeffrey Amestoy of the Vermont Supreme Court designed his ruling in the Baker case so that it became the job of the legislature to choose between gay marriage or a "parallel institution" -- which became civil unions. He believed that involving the Legislature would put a stamp of democratic legitimacy on the outcome. The debate in the State House and around the state was often painful, but it was enormously educational. Vermonters gained an understanding of homosexuality and gay rights beyond anything gay rights activists could have hoped for.

Fifth, anger and extremism don't pay. Many wavering legislators were repulsed by the vicious language and intolerant attitudes of the most extreme opponents. They were also impressed favorably by the dignity and courage of gay and lesbian Vermonters who were willing to stand up for themselves and defend in straightforward language the relationships that were central to their lives. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said years before that the case for civil rights had great moral force. The moral force of the case for gay marriage became hard to deny.

The issue of gay marriage, thrashed out in Vermont four years ago, is now a national issue, and Massachusetts is the central battleground. It will be up to each participant to decide whether to exercise statesmanship or demagoguery. Statesmanship is possible. Civil discourse and an honest respect for the dignity of one's fellow citizen will yield benefits for the commonwealth far beyond the issue of gay marriage. They will demonstrate that it is possible for a community to employ the fundamentals of democratic politics to confront ancient biases and to achieve real progress in extending the blessings of equality and fairness to all.

David Moats is editorial page editor of the Rutland Herald in Vermont and author of the forthcoming book "Civil Wars: A Battle for Gay Marriage."

Ross Ozer and his partner, Scott Gortikov Ross Ozer (left) and his partner, Scott Gortikov, took their 18-month-old son, Sam Ozer-Gortikov, to a celebration of the court ruling at the Old South Meeting House. Gortikov proposed marriage to Ozer after hearing of the decision. (Globe Staff Photo / Matthew J. Lee)
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Gay population
The 2000 Census estimated there were about 19,000 gay couples in Mass., and about 659,000 nationwide, or less than 1 percent of households. Provincetown is the community in Mass. with the highest rate of gay partners, about 15 percent of households.
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