It is not often that one can point to a specific date when a great cultural shift occurs and society begins to question a longstanding social institution. The year 2004 will go down in history as the year when, in North America, the very definition of the word “marriage”—a key term and a fundamental organizational principle in American society—was called into question for the first time in centuries.
That year, in states and municipalities across the United States, same-sex couples began to be granted marriage licenses, sometimes in direct opposition to the laws of the land. The first gay marriages to be recognized by a government agency in the United States took place at City Hall in San Francisco in February of 2004, though their legal status was quickly called into doubt, and it was uncertain at first which of the rights and responsibilities associated with marriage would accrue to these unions. The first fully state-sanctioned, same-sex marriage ceremonies were performed in Massachusetts in May of that year, after a ruling by the state's Supreme Judicial Court declared it unconstitutional to deny marriage to seven same-sex couples. In Canada, same-sex marriage had become legal in 2003. Before any of this, though, the small state of Vermont had led the way with a law in 2000 allowing “civil unions”—marriage in everything except name—for same-sex couples who lived within its borders. David Moats's book Civil Wars: A Battle for Gay Marriage traces the political and legal wrangling that led to Vermont's historic decision.
Most people knew only the broad outlines of the story in the headlines: In 1997, three Vermont same-sex couples applied for and were denied marriage licenses by their town clerks. The couples sued for the right to marry, and their case—which came to be known as the Baker case, after the name of one of the plaintiffs—was heard by the Vermont Supreme Court. In December of 1999, the court ruled that these Vermont citizens could not, simply because of their sexual orientations, be denied the many rights that flowed from marriage, and they turned the matter over to the state legislature in order to find a solution. After a series of public hearings and much behind-doors negotiation, the legislature decided in 2000 that, while the word “marriage” was to be reserved for heterosexual couples, gay Vermonters could receive all the state benefits associated with marriage through a new institution to be known as “civil unions”—thus giving the English language a new term. The first civil unions were formalized in Vermont on July 1, 2000.
In Moats's account, one learns far more about how and why this judicial and legislative process unfolded. The author introduces the players—lawyers and judges, politicians and ordinary Vermonters, both gay and straight—and shares key information about their childhoods, educations, religious convictions, and the tensions between their public and private personae. Moats chronicles important moments in Vermont's civil rights history and its experience with the gay liberation movement of the 1970's. He puts the proceedings in Vermont in the context of world events, including the brief legalization of same-sex marriage in Hawaii in 1993 (overturned by legislative process before the first ceremonies took place) and France's domestic partnership arrangement, known as a pacte civil. To anyone who might have considered small, rural Vermont an unlikely stage for this historic battle, Moats brings to life the history both of the state and of the players involved, allowing readers to understand not only how Vermont could be at the cutting edge of the gay rights movement but also why this position was an uncomfortable one for so many of its citizens.
Echoing the deliberateness of the judicial and legislative processes it chronicles, Civil...
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