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The BBC's Sanjay Single
"Gay rights groups are calling it a tremendous victory"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 22 December, 1999, 09:23 GMT
Gay rights victory in Vermont

The three couples who mounted the legal challenge celebrate their victory The three couples who mounted the legal challenge celebrate their victory


The supreme court of the US state of Vermont has ruled that same sex couples must be granted the same benefits and protections as heterosexual couples.

The ruling is being described as the first of its kind in the United States.

California and Hawaii have extended some state benefits to domestic partners, but no state has given gay couples the same legal standing as traditional couples, according to legal experts.

"We hold that the state is constitutionally required to extend to same-sex couples the common benefits and protections that flow from marriage under Vermont law,'' the justices said.


Stacey Jolles'  baby son, Seth,  attended the news conference Stacey Jolles' baby son attended the news conference
But the court stopped short of legalising same-sex marriages. The justices left it to the legislature to determine whether the benefits would come through formal marriage or some system of domestic partnerships.

But the legislature must create a system that conforms "with the constitutional imperative to afford all Vermonters the common benefit, protection, and security of the law,'' the court said.

The ruling cannot be referred for appeal to the US Supreme Court because the decision was based on the state constitution.

Benefits at stake

The ruling stemmed from a 1997 suit filed by three homosexual couples - one male and two female.

The couples said that they were denied marriage licenses by local town clerks. The clerks based their decision on advice from the state's attorney general based on a 1975 ruling that declared same-sex marriages unconstitutional.

The couples said that denying them the ability to marry meant they were denied more than 300 state benefits and more than 1,000 federal benefits afforded to married couples.

In its decision, the Vermont Supreme Court noted that the couples were denied "access to spouse's medical, life and disability insurance, hospital visitation and other medical decision-making privileges, spousal support" and many other statutory protections.

Opposition by other states

Vermont has some of the most progressive laws in protecting gay and lesbian rights in the country. It has passed laws prohibiting discrimination against gays in employment, housing and public accommodation.

The state has also passed a law that specifically punishes hate crimes against gays and lesbians.

But it is unlikely that many states will follow Vermont's lead in granting legal standing to gay and lesbian couples.

In 1993, Hawaii's Supreme Court ruled that the state's failure to recognise same-sex unions was a type of gender discrimination.

The ruling prompted at least 30 states to ban same-sex marriages out of fear that gay and lesbian couples would fly to Hawaii to get married. The states feared that they would be forced to honour those marriages.

And the US Congress passed the Defence of Marriage Act, which barred federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

The law also made it legal for states not to recognise same-sex marriages licensed in other states.

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See also:
14 Aug 99 |  Americas
Pentagon acts against anti-gay harassment
14 Jul 99 |  Americas
Priest and nun banned from gay work
01 Feb 99 |  Europe
Protest at 'gay marriage' plans
21 Jan 99 |  Americas
Canada tackles gay legal rights

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