Nine years after it played host to a bitter fight over civil unions, Vermont's Statehouse is again a gay rights battleground.
More than 200 same-sex marriage opponents, cheering and wearing buttons that read "Marriage - A Mother & Father for Every Child," converged Monday on Montpelier as lawmakers began a week's worth of hearings on a bill that would allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.
If approved, Vermont would join Massachusetts and Connecticut as the only U.S. states that allow gay marriage.
The measure would replace Vermont's first-in-the-nation civil unions law with one that allows marriage of same-sex partners beginning Sept. 1. Civil unions, which confer some rights similar to marriage, would still be recognized but no longer granted after Sept. 1.
Supporters cast the debate as a civil rights issue, saying a civil unions law enacted by the state in 2000 has fallen short of the equality it promised same-sex couples. Its appeal has declined, too: In 2001, the state granted 1,876 civil unions, compared with only 262 last year.
Passing a gay marriage bill "is one of the most important civil rights issues of our time," said Greg Johnson, a Vermont Law School professor who testified before the state Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.
While the bill won't guarantee federal benefits, supporters say it would provide societal recognition, improve access to health benefits and eliminate one of two obstacles to federal protections such as Social Security survivor benefits.
Opponents say gay marriage would undermine traditional male-female marriage, rendering men and women interchangeable and destroying the connection between children and marriage. They want the question put to voters in a referendum.
Legislative leaders announced two weeks ago that they intended to pass the bill - titled "An act relating to civil marriage" - before adjourning in May, and they have scheduled hearings to get testimony on the legal, social and practical implications of it.
A public hearing is scheduled for Wednesday night at the Capitol, which was the epicenter of the fight in 2000, when the issue divided Vermont and partisans endured hate mail, threatening telephone messages and tense public meetings.
More than a dozen lawmakers who voted for civil unions lost their seats in the ensuing election.
On Monday, opponents organized by churches and a pair of anti-gay marriage groups flooded the hallways of the Capitol and packed into a committee room for a strategy session with Stephen Cable, president of Vermont Renewal.
Supporters wearing lime-green buttons that read "From Legal Rights to Equal Rights" numbered about 50. Beth Robinson, chairwoman of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, said her side was focused on showing its strength in numbers on Wednesday for the public hearing.
Robinson, a lawyer who worked on the court case that led to the creation of civil unions, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that civil unions were a "painful compromise" that left gay couples feeling like second-class citizens.
"It's the fact of that separation itself that does the harm. And that really does affect every member of the community," she said.
Statehouse security was beefed up for the day, but there were no arrests or problems - other than a scramble for seats in a 60-seat committee room, which forced some people to listen to the hearing from a hallway.
Some were upset they wouldn't get to vote, saying gay marriage is too important to be decided only by lawmakers.
"We didn't vote them in to re-engineer society, we elected them in to manage our finances," said Deborah Billado, a 55-year-old entrepreneur from Essex Junction. "Such a huge issue should go to the people," said Billado. She wouldn't say whether she favors gay marriage or not.
Also Monday, a national group launched a radio campaign aimed at marshaling opposition to gay marriage in northern New England.
The "Don't Mess with Marriage" ads, which will be aired in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, are sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage, a Princeton, N.J., group that has been active in fighting same-sex marriage initiatives in California and elsewhere.