Emotion dominates same-sex marriage debate (4/9/09)

Legislators override veto, pass landmark law

April 9, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Local lawmakers reflected on the emotion-packed debate leading up to Tuesday’s passage of the bill legalizing same-sex marriage.

By the narrowest of margins, the House reached the required two-thirds majority to override Republican Gov. Jim Douglas’ veto. The vote was 100-49. Earlier in the day, the Democrat-dominated Senate easily met the override threshold, 23-5.

“There was drama,” said Rep. Jim McCullough, D-Williston, in an interview from Montpelier. “Moments after the last vote was cast there was a noise. It was the sound of oxygen being sucked in and let out. It was a very powerful moment.”

“I guess there was a sense of relief and excitement at the same time in seeing history in the making,” said Rep. Terry Macaig, Williston’s other House member and also a Democrat.

McCullough and Macaig, along with Sen. Ginny Lyons of Williston, each voted for the legislation and to override the veto. They recounted the public debate and explained their views on the new law in interviews before the bill was approved.

The lawmakers were not in office during the contentious passage of the nation’s first civil union law in 2000, but they remembered the sometimes nasty tone of that debate. This time, they said, public input was generally polite if occasionally pointed.

“It has been very good discussion, very respectful and very emotional on both sides,” Macaig said.

Each lawmaker fielded numerous e-mails and phone calls from people expressing their views and urging them to vote one way or the other.

They also received “robo-calls,” automated phone messages instructing them to vote against the bill. Macaig said his calls told him to contact McCullough. The calls to McCullough urged him to contact Macaig — and himself.

McCullough said the majority of people he heard from had “kind words of support” for his position on the issue. But the one call he most remembers came from a Williston resident who said gays and lesbians would find “retribution” on judgment day.

“That caught me by surprise,” he said. “I guess I hadn’t thought about an angry God meting out retribution.”

Macaig said most Williston residents he heard from supported same-sex marriage. He said he would have reconsidered his vote only if a large majority of constituents had been against the bill.

Lyons, who is one of the six-member Senate delegation from Chittenden County, said about 60 percent of the people she heard from supported the legislation. Most had heartfelt views.

“With a bill like this, there is so much interest in the community, and soul searching by everyone,” she said.

None of the Williston lawmakers expressed the conflicted views voiced by some of their peers. Macaig, now retired from the Vermont Department of Health, remembered speaking out in support of civil unions nine years ago during a meeting of the advisory group for the Vermont State Employees Association.

“On a personal level, I thought it was a civil rights issue, and I still do,” he said.

His support came despite the fact that as a Catholic his views run counter to church teachings.

McCullough, who said he does not belong to a church, said the only problem he sees with same-sex marriage is that the law legalizing it came “10 years too late.” As a justice of the peace, he has enjoyed conducting numerous civil union ceremonies.

Lyons, who said she is a non-practicing Catholic, also believes same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue. She said fears among opponents that the law would alter Vermont’s culture for the worse were unfounded.

She and the other local legislators emphasized the bill protects religious rights by allowing individual churches to refuse to marry same-sex couples.

But Lyons also dismissed moral arguments against homosexuality.

“You can believe this is a sin, but really it isn’t,” she said.

Macaig is resigned to the fact that his support for the law angered some constituents.

“No matter how I vote, I’m going to offend somebody,” he said. But he also said he thought same-sex marriage is inevitable, if not through legislation then by court mandate. The other states that permit same-sex marriage — Connecticut, Massachusetts and Iowa — were spurred by court rulings.

McCullough said after the vote that the new law again puts Vermont at the forefront of a cultural shift and a civil rights movement.

“Vermonters are proud to be free-thinking people who actually help other people see the way,” he said. “We’ve done it before, and now we’ve made another step in the nation’s understanding.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.