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Vermonters Hail DOMA Decision

VPR/Annie Russell

In Vermont long-time supporters of equal rights for same sex couples celebrated Wednesday’s  U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Vermonters who have fought for recognition of same-sex marriage felt a particular stake in the court case and pride in the ruling because of the state’s role in the history of the movement.

At the RU12 Community Center in Burlington members of the LGBT organization celebrated when the Supreme Court decision was announced.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of anxiety and I think today there’s a lot of relief,” said Ilisa Stalberg of Marshfield is an RU12 board member.

For Janine Kirchgasser the lack of federal recognition for same-sex marriages had real life consequences when her spouse became critically  ill and she worried about supporting their children.

“The pension that she worked so hard for, Social Security benefits, I wouldn’t get it.  I would literally be a non-person,” she explained.

Attorney Susan Murray was part of the legal team that argued the Vermont Supreme Court case that paved the way for the creation of Vermont’s first-in-the-nation Civil Unions law 13 years ago.

In 2009, the legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto to legalize same-sex marriage.

Murray says from then to now, Vermont gay and lesbian couples have enjoyed equal status with heterosexual couples in the state’s eyes, but today’s ruling still has significant consequences for the state’s married same-sex couples.  

“There are over 1,000 federal benefits and statuses that the federal government provides to legally married couples,” she explains.

Murray argued the 1999 case that led to Civil Unions before the Vermont Supreme Court.  As chief justice at the time Jeffrey Amestoy wrote the court’s decision declaring that same-sex couples were entitled to the rights and benefits of marriage.

Amestoy says he was struck by the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy who wrote for the majority in the U.S. Supreme Court DOMA opinion.

He says Kennedy’s words are an acknowledgment that legal decisions and changing public attitudes in Vermont and elsewhere helped inform the court’s ruling.

“When he speaks to the new perspectives and new insights that were afforded by those communities, he underscored that those kinds of decisions in Vermont and elsewhere were part of the evolving understanding of the meaning of equality,” says Amestoy.

Hinesburg representative Bill Lippert played a key role in crafting civil unions legislation in the wake of the decision by the Amestoy court.  Lippert says federal marriage equality for gay couples is a reality he thought it would take many more years to achieve.

“Simply the recognition at a very deeply personal level that my marriage to my spouse, another man, is recognized and acknowledged at the federal level.  It’s a very big deal,” says Lippert.

Lippert says the Supreme Court decision will bolster efforts to pass same-sex marriage laws in states where it’s yet to be recognized.

Lippert says despite legal protections, gays and lesbians still face prejudice and discrimination that will take years to overcome.

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
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