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Vermont sets open process to consider gay marriage

MONTPELIER -- The leaders of the state House and Senate said yesterday they have appointed a commission to ask Vermonters if the Legislature should allow same-sex couples to marry.

The 10-member commission will be led by Tom Little, a former state representative who served as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in 2000, the year the Legislature passed a law that granted same-sex couples the rights and responsibilities of marriage through civil unions.

The volunteer commission will hold public hearings and is scheduled to complete its study by the end of April and report to the Legislature.

"I think many people saw civil unions as a first step," House Speaker Gaye Symington said after a Burlington press conference with the Senate president pro tem, Peter Shumlin. "I think for many Vermonters the question has been when, not so much as whether, we would eventually recognize same-sex union through marriage."

Symington said it is unlikely the Legislature can begin a debate about gay marriage before the 2009 session.

Governor Jim Douglas, a Republican, said yesterday that he believes the civil union law is sufficient to protect the rights of same-sex couples and that the Legislature will be better served by focusing on issues such as high property taxes and the high cost of living in the state.

"We went through a very difficult experience seven years ago when the Legislature enacted the civil unions law," Douglas said. ". . . I don't think it would be in the state's best interest to reopen those wounds to have that controversial debate because we've extended full privileges, full legal rights and benefits to same-sex couples."