Vermont’s Civil Union Law Takes Effect Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In Baker v. Vermont, the Vermont Supreme Court held that the state constitution prohibited exclusion of same-sex couples from the benefits of marriage. The state legislature later enacted the first civil union law in the United States.

Summary of Event

On July 22, 1997, two lesbian couples, Nina Beck and Stacy Jolles and Lois Farnham and Holly Puterbaugh, and one gay couple, Stan Baker and Peter Harrigan, filed a lawsuit challenging the denial of their right to marry under Vermont law. Both couples had requested marriage licenses from their local clerk’s office but were turned down. The case, Baker v. Vermont, was filed by attorneys Beth Robinson, Susan M. Murray, and Mary Bonauto. Baker v. Vermont (1999) Vermont Act 91 Gay rights;legal decisions Same-sex civil unions[Same sex civil unions] Civil union laws [kw]Vermont’s Civil Union Law Takes Effect (July 1, 2000) [kw]Civil Union Law Takes Effect, Vermont’s (July 1, 2000) [kw]Law Takes Effect, Vermont’s Civil Union (July 1, 2000) Baker v. Vermont (1999) Vermont Act 91 Gay rights;legal decisions Same-sex civil unions[Same sex civil unions] Civil union laws [g]North America;July 1, 2000: Vermont’s Civil Union Law Takes Effect[10730] [g]United States;July 1, 2000: Vermont’s Civil Union Law Takes Effect[10730] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 1, 2000: Vermont’s Civil Union Law Takes Effect[10730] [c]Civil rights and liberties;July 1, 2000: Vermont’s Civil Union Law Takes Effect[10730] [c]Government and politics;July 1, 2000: Vermont’s Civil Union Law Takes Effect[10730] Robinson, Beth Murray, Susan M. Bonauto, Mary Beck, Nina Jolles, Stacy Farnham, Lois Puterbaugh, Holly Baker, Stan Harrigan, Peter Amestoy, Jeffrey L. Lippert, Bill Dean, Howard

Baker v. Vermont was initially dismissed by the Vermont Superior Court in December, 1997. The plaintiffs appealed and presented their arguments before the Vermont Supreme Court on November 18, 1998. The court ruled on December 20, 1999, that the current marriage law in the state discriminated against lesbian and gay couples. The court ordered the state legislature to correct this. In its decision, written by Chief Justice Jeffrey L. Amestoy, the Vermont Supreme Court held that under the common benefits clause of the state constitution, “the State is constitutionally required to extend to same-gender couples the common benefits and protections that flow from marriage under Vermont law.”

The legislative debate that followed was rancorous. However, on March 16, 2000, largely because of the personal commitment of members of the Vermont House of Representatives such as Bill Lippert, the bill passed its final reading with a vote of seventy-six to sixty-nine. Governor Howard Dean signed the bill into law on April 26, 2000, and the law, Vermont Act 91, went into effect on July 1, 2000. The law states in part, “Parties to a civil union shall have all the same benefits, protections and responsibilities under Vermont law, whether they derive from statute, policy, administrative or court rule, common law or any other source of civil law, as are granted to spouses in a marriage.” Thus couples in same-sex unions were granted the same benefits given to married couples but not access to marriage. The rights granted to civil union couples include adoption and custody rights; the right to family leave (under state law); the use of victims’ compensation and workers’ compensation related to spouses; the use of state laws that confer benefits or rights to people based on their marital or family status; the use of laws prohibiting discrimination based on marital status; the rights to make medical decisions for an incapacitated partner, to visit a partner in the hospital, and to be notified of a partner’s medical condition; the right to sue for the wrongful death or injury to a partner and the right to victim’s compensation; the right to a durable power of attorney for health care execution and revocation; automatic inheritance rights; the right to be treated as an economic unit and taxed in the same manner as married persons; greater access to family health insurance policies; the right not to be compelled to testify against one another; and the right to annulment, separation, and divorce.

Vermont governor Howard Dean addresses reporters after signing the law granting same-sex couples most of the benefits of male-female marriage.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The rights granted to same-sex unions in Vermont had not been granted in any other state. Also, civil unions are not federally recognized, so same-sex unions in Vermont were not granted the 1,138 federal rights, benefits, and privileges given to married heterosexual couples. Examples of rights not granted to civil union couples under federal law include the right to take up to twelve weeks of leave from work to care for a seriously ill partner or parent (under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993); the right to petition for same-sex partners to immigrate; the right to assume parenting rights and responsibilities when children are brought into a family through birth, adoption, surrogacy, or other means; the right to share equitably all jointly held property and debt in the event of a breakup; the right to family-related Social Security benefits, income and estate tax benefits, disability benefits, and family-related military and veterans benefits; the right to inherit property from a partner in the absence of a will; the right to exemptions from estate and gift taxes; the right to federal public assistance; and the right to purchase continued health coverage for a domestic partner after the loss of a job.

The Vermont legislation on civil unions stirred controversy within the state and the nation. Some Vermonters vowed that the civil union legislation would be repealed. A grassroots organization called Take Back Vermont pushed to abolish the legislation. Civil union opponents also campaigned to remove political officeholders who supported civil unions. Democratic candidate Howard Dean won the next governor’s election, but other incumbent politicians were voted out of office in favor of political challengers who opposed the civil union legislation. Eventually the issue made it to the national agenda, with President George W. Bush and some in the Congress supporting a “marriage amendment” to the U.S. Constitution that would prevent recognition of same-sex civil unions in other states.


The legalization of civil unions in Vermont was a milestone event for lesbian and gay persons. These civil unions were the first to be provided in the United States. The Vermont law precipitated a rush for civil unions by lesbian and gay couples but also sparked debate about the pros and cons of this law. A key issue centered on the fact that civil unions are not granted all the rights of legal marriages.

As noted, another outcome of this law was a nationwide effort in many states to bolster the traditional definition of marriage (between a man and a woman). However, in the early years of the twenty-first century, most people in Vermont accepted civil unions, and a significant percentage accepted full marriage rights for same-sex couples. Polling data showed increased public support in the United States for legal recognition of same-sex couples. Most favored giving these couples many of the rights and privileges provided by marriage while not granting legal marriage. Baker v. Vermont (1999) Vermont Act 91 Gay rights;legal decisions Same-sex civil unions[Same sex civil unions] Civil union laws

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brewer, P. R., and C. Wilcox. “The Polls—Trends: Same-Sex Marriage and Civil Unions.” Public Opinion Quarterly 69, no. 4 (2005): 599-616. Provides polling data about same-sex marriages, including large support for legal recognition of same-sex couples.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herek, Gregory M. “Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Relationships in the United States: A Social Science Perspective.” American Psychologist 61 (2006): 607-621. Reviews research to assess the validity of key claims in the debate on recognition of committed relationships between same-sex partners.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mello, Michael. Legalizing Gay Marriage. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. Material on the compromise that led to Vermont’s civil union law.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Patterson, C. “What Difference Does a Civil Union Make? Changing Public Policies and the Experiences of Same-Sex Couples: Comment on Solomon, Rothblum, and Balsam.” Journal of Family Psychology 18, no. 2 (2004): 287-289. Recommends study of the impact of civil unions on same-sex couples and their families.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Saucier, D. A., and A. J. Cawman. “Civil Unions in Vermont: Political Attitudes, Religious Fundamentalism, and Sexual Prejudice.” Journal of Homosexuality 48 (2004): 1-18. Examines the influence of sexual prejudice, religious fundamentalism, social dominance orientation, and support for civil unions on Vermont voters’ choice for the office of the governor following the law that established civil unions.

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