Baker v. Vermont, 744 A.2d 864 (Vt. 1999), was handed down on December 20, 1999 by the Vermont Supreme Court. The decision represented one of the first high-level judicial affirmations of same-sex couples' right to treatment equivalent to that of traditionally married couples. The unanimous decision found that existing prohibitions on same-sex marriage were a violation of rights granted by the Vermont Constitution. As a result, the Vermont legislature was ordered to either allow same-sex marriages, or implement an alternative legal mechanism according similar rights. In 2000, the Legislature complied by instituting civil unions for same-sex couples.
The case was brought by three same-sex couples who applied for and were denied marriage licenses in the towns of Milton, Shelburne and South Burlington. The couples subsequently sued their respective towns, and the state of Vermont, requesting a declaratory judgment that the license refusal violated Vermont's marriage statutes and Constitution.
The state, along with two of the towns, moved to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that no relief could be legally granted for the plaintiffs' grievances. The trial court, located in Chittenden County, granted the defendants' motion, ruling additionally that the marriage statutes could not be construed to allow same-sex marriages, and that the statutes were constitutional because they served the public interest by promoting "the link between procreation and child rearing".
The plaintiffs subsequently appealed the decision to the Vermont Supreme Court in Montpelier. The court received briefs and oral arguments, including an amicus brief from The Vermont Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights and the People For the American Way Foundation.
The unanimous decision of the Vermont Supreme Court first addressed the plaintiff's contention that the denial of same-sex unions was a violation of the Vermont marriage statutes. Although the statutes did not explicitly limit the definition of marriage to male-female pairs, the court held that both the common dictionary definition of marriage, in addition to the legislative intent (the relevant statutes were enacted in 1945) favored the interpretation of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Additionally, the terms "bride" and "groom" were interpreted as being gender-specific, further supporting the State's interpretation. Therefore, this portion of the plaintiffs' argument was rejected.
In the absence of a statutory right to same-sex marriage, the plaintiffs argued that the Vermont Constitution's Common Benefits Clause (Chapter I, Article 7), which guarantees all citizens equal benefit and protection of the law, guarantees same-sex couples' right to the substantial benefits and protections of marriage. The plaintiffs also addressed the lower court's justification for limiting marital status to male-female couples—linking marital status to child rearing—noting that Vermont law recognizes same-sex couples' right to adopt children, and to parent children conceived by natural and artificial means. They questioned a system that explicitly allowed same-sex partners to parent, but denied them (and their adopted children) the benefits and security of marriage.
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