Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee On the 5th Anniversary of Marriage Equality in the State of Vermont

Today I am particularly proud of my home state, as we commemorate the fifth anniversary of the passage of Vermont’s law guaranteeing marriage equality. 

Throughout history, Vermont has taken a leadership role in America’s journey to build a more just society.  Vermont was the first state in the Union to outlaw slavery and Vermonters offered shelter to runaway slaves seeking refuge while in transit to Canada – serving as one of the last stops on the Underground Railroad.  Vermont was also the first to adopt universal manhood suffrage, regardless of property ownership. 

It is because of this history that it is not surprising that Vermont has been at the forefront of our Nation’s march toward marriage equality: Vermont was the first state to provide civil unions to same-sex couples back in 2000.  On April 7, 2009, Vermont took the next step, overriding a veto to pass legislation affording marriage equality to all Vermonters in loving relationships who wanted their commitment recognized by the State.  Once again Vermont led the Nation by granting marriage equality for the first time through democratically elected officials on a bipartisan basis, instead of through the courts. 

This is not to say that it was easy.  The initial move toward civil unions fomented heated debate among Vermonters and throughout the Nation.  Several courageous leaders, such as the late Republican U.S. Senator from Vermont Bob Stafford, and State Representatives Bill Lippert and Marion Milne, among others, showed us the way, and their advocacy for equality was powerfully moving.  Like many Vermonters, I listened to advocates, friends, and neighbors who reminded us that love and commitment are values to encourage and not to fear.  I continue to be inspired by the inclusive example set by Vermont. 

Now, 5 years later, 3,766 same-sex couples have married in the State of Vermont, 17 states and the District of Columbia have marriage equality, and the Supreme Court has decided a landmark case on the issue of same-sex marriage. In that case – United States v. Windsor – the Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage for purposes of Federal law as “only a legal union between one man and one woman.”  The Court reasoned that the law deprived couples of equal liberty as protected by our Fifth Amendment.  All Americans deserve equal justice under the law, and Marcelle and I, married for more than 50 years, celebrated this important decision, which pushed the Nation farther on its path toward equality.

As Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I have long worked to make civil rights a focal point of our Committee’s agenda and a priority in the Senate.   I often hear from those who think that the struggle for civil rights is over – that this issue is one for the history books.  I remind them that this is our recent history.  And that while we have made great strides, there is still much work to be done.  The march toward equality must continue until all individuals – regardless of sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, race, ethnicity, religion, or disability – are protected and respected, equally, under our laws.  I am confident that Vermont will continue to lead the way, and I am proud of all that we have already accomplished.

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