In 1999, the same year the Hawaiian Supreme Court refused to recognize same-sex marriages, the Vermont Supreme Court handed down its decision in Baker v. State. In that decision, the court said that same-sex couples must be granted the same benefits and protections that heterosexual couples received under state law. The court instructed the state legislature to determine how to grant homosexual couples those benefits and protections. It did not require the state to allow same-sex couples to be legally married but told the state legislature it had to find some way to treat those couples the same as if they were legally married.
The next year, the state passed a bill allowing same-sex couples to enter into “civil unions.” Town clerks were authorized to give licenses to same-sex couples for these unions in the same way they would give out marriage licenses. They could be married by anyone authorized to perform marriages under state law and would have to divorce under state law in the same way heterosexual couples would.
Same-sex couples in civil unions in Vermont are entitled to all the benefits available under state law to married couples, including medical decisions, estate inheritance, overseeing burials, transferring properties, and certain tax breaks. Employers are required to treat civil union couples in the same way they treated other married couples, in matters including health benefits, marital status discrimination law, workers’ compensation benefits, taxation, family leave benefits and wage assignment laws. The Vermont civil union bill was a landmark in the fight over gay marriages. For the first time, a state allowed gay couples to have all the same benefits as married couples under state law. Because Vermont refused to label these unions as marriages, it is less likely that they will conflict with other states non-recognition laws, although some commentators have suggested the Full Faith And Credit Clause might still apply.
According to the Vermont Secretary of State, in the first five years since the passage of the civil union law, 1,142 Vermont couples have been joined in civil unions. Moreover, 6,424 couples from other states and nations have also been joined in civil union in Vermont.