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Same-sex civil union law takes effect in Vermont


DERBY, Vt. - Even though what they were doing was perfectly legal, Mark Emmons and Hal Parker still felt they had to sneak.

So, they showed up at the municipal building here at 7:30 a.m. yesterday. Town Clerk Nicole Daigle arrived a little later. She was opening the building for only a few moments, on what would normally be her day off, so Emmons and Parker could get a civil union license - on the day that Vermont became the first state in the nation to legalize unions between gay and lesbian couples.

The need for caution, however, was real.

Protests were threatened. Their minister, Jane Dwinell of the First Universalist Parish in nearby Derby Line, called the local police department for reassurances that the couple would be left alone during their special, albeit clandestine, moment.

And they were.

Although the couple plans to hold a religious ceremony and outdoor reception today, the legal union took place yesterday as an early-morning sun cast shadows against the small white-frame building that houses the clerk's office.

As with wedding licenses, obtaining a civil union is a short and simple process. Neither documents nor blood tests are required: Couples fill out a form and write a check for $20.

"July first," said Emmons, as he wrote the date with a flourish.

Even though most government offices were closed around Vermont yesterday, it was important to Emmons and Parker, as well as to several other gay and lesbian couples, to get married on the very day the law went into effect.

In scattered towns around Vermont yesterday, clerks opened offices briefly so that people could obtain the licenses. Some couples getting them were from out of state. Although the legal benefits only apply to Vermont residents, town clerks said many of the couples they spoke to simply wanted the comfort of knowing their longtime unions were legal somewhere.

The civil union law was spurred by the Vermont Supreme Court, which ruled in December it was unfair for the state to withhold from gay couples the legal rights and benefits of marriage.

On the day of the court's decision, Emmons and Parker made a bet: Parker felt that the state Legislature would not be able to agree on a law within their lifetimes (both men are in their 40s); Emmons predicted that a law would be passed within a decade.

The Legislature took four months to approve civil unions, something that rankled opponents, who remain outspoken in their disapproval. A handful of Vermont's nearly 250 city and town clerks said they would refuse to issue such licenses.

Many of them live - as do Emmons and Parker - in the part of the state known as the Northeast Kingdom. So does state Rep. Nancy Sheltra, who led the legislative opposition to the new law.

The Kingdom is picturesque, its villages punctuated by white-steepled Congregational churches, its hills by tall silo barns. Farmers are haying, and top-heavy wagons full of new bales clog traffic on narrow roads that twist through the Green Mountains.

But the bucolic vistas hide a harsh reality of economic struggle. Half of Vermont's dairy farms have gone under in the past two decades, a fact felt particularly keenly here.

Because of its poverty and its isolation, the Kingdom is more conservative than the rest of Vermont, which in the past 10 years has made a notable political switch to liberal policies, said Tony Gierzynski, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont.

Sheltra is counting on the Kingdom's conservatism to provide support for her new group, STARS - Standing Together and Reclaiming the State. She said the group would support candidates in November only if they were "willing to rescind the civil unions bill, impeach the justices, support a constitutional amendment ... stating that the same rights, benefits and privileges of traditional marriage will not be extended to same-gender couples - and they also have to be pro-life."

Gierzynski said that despite widespread opposition to civil unions in Vermont - polls show that only about half the people in the state support them - he did not think Sheltra and her followers would make much of a difference in November's election.

"There's a group of Vermonters who tend to be aggravated about liberal government, but I think it's a small group," he said.

Emmons and Parker didn't let any of that spoil yesterday's moment. After they and Daigle signed the license, it was passed to Dwinell, who certified it. Emmons and Parker kissed, and with tears in their eyes, they recited the vows they would say again during today's religious ceremony.

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