As the New Jersey Senate grapples with a gay marriage proposal, Vernont Senate President Peter Shumlin - the counterpart to New Jersey Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester) - weighed in, urging Trenton lawmakers to make history.
Vermont is one of the view states so far to adopt same-sex laws on marriage, an issue on which an Inquirer editorial today urged the Jersey Senate to act.
Shumlin's open letter reads as follows:
As you consider a vote to extend the civil marriage laws to include same-sex couples, let me offer my two cents, based on our own experience here in Vermont: Just Do It!
In April of this year, supermajorities of Vermont's Senate and General Assembly voted to eliminate the discrimination against same-sex couples in our marriage laws. A majority of Democrats and a majority of Republicans in our Senate voted for the bill. For some, it was an easy vote; for others, it was a scary vote. But I can assure you that for everyone who voted for the bill, it was among the proudest acts of their careers.
The opportunity to make a difference in the central civil rights movement of this generation-to join the heroes that came before us in shaping the march to a more inclusive and just nation- only comes a once in a political lifetime. Don't let this moment pass you by. And don't be swayed by the fear-mongers. I can tell you from firsthand experience: They're wrong.
To those who say the legislature shouldn't take up this issue in these tough economic times: Our business leaders made it clear that if Vermont wants to compete in the 21st century economy-if we want to draw the most talented workforce and fortify our high-tech and sustainable energy sectors- we need to ensure that our laws are inclusive and welcoming. This is a realm where the private sector is way ahead of government. Most competitive Vermont employers had already adopted whatever policies they could in order to attract the best talent; they needed us to catch up.
To those who fear that eliminating the law's discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens will somehow tramp on the religious freedom of others: It's just not true. Our law, like New Jersey's bill, contains provisions designed to reinforce religious freedom. By making a civil marriage license available to all committed couples, while preserving faith communities' freedom to celebrate or decline to participate in same-sex marriage celebrations, we've put all faith communities on the same footing.
To those who argue that New Jersey's civil union law is enough: We learned from nine years of experience in Vermont that separate would never be equal. From increased challenges around health insurance and out-of-state travel, to the reality that we can't invent a word in 2000 that has anything like the meaning and significance of marriage, to the rent in our social fabric that follows when our laws divide us on the basis of sexual orientation-the civil union law did not, and could not-ensure genuine legal equality.
And to those who fear a backlash that will divide your community: We're past that. I know about backlash; in 2000 after we passed our civil union bill, we experienced backlash and division in Vermont. It wasn't fun. But that was then. I've been struck by how different the conversation has been in 2009-and how off base our fears of backlash in 2009 have proven to be. After our bill passed, the hoopla died down in a matter of days. Even citizens who would not have voted for a marriage law have moved on. Sure, there will always be a small minority objecting loudly to equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. But the vast majority of citizens simply aren't bothered by legally recognizing the two men or two women living next door.
As I've begun campaigning to be Vermont's next Governor, I've traveled the state from top to bottom. I don't hear much about the marriage law; the Vermonters I've met have a lot of other things on their minds. Of those who do bring it up, nearly all are incredibly grateful. It seems most everyone has an uncle, daughter, or family friend that's gay.
I have no doubt that for some of you, this vote seems scary. Fear is the opposition's strongest weapon at this point. I promise you-if you do the right thing, you won't regret it.