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Civil Wars: The Battle for Gay Marriage
By David Moats
Harcourt, Inc.
HC, 304 pg. US$25/C$37.95
ISBN: 0-1510-1017-X

Vermont's fight over same sex civil unions

By Steven Martinovich
web posted February 9, 2004

Civil Wars: The Battle for Gay MarriageAfter abortion, same sex unions may be the most divisive social issue that Americans are grappling with. In both the straight and gay communities debate is raging whether the institution of marriage, or its parallel the civil union, should be extended to same sex couples. The first stage of that debate took place in Vermont not long ago where the echoes from the clashes continue to be heard.

As David Moats' Civil Wars: The Battle for Gay Marriage relates, on December 20, 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court rendered its verdict in the Baker case, a challenge by several gay couples of the prohibition against same sex marriages. The ruling was both a victory and a loss for gay marriage advocates. While the court stated that marriage was a secular institution, and denying it to gays violated the equality provision of Vermont's constitution, it left the matter for the Vermont state legislature to resolve.

If gay marriage proponents thought they had a difficult fight in the courts, it paled in comparison to the political battle that unfolded. Realizing that legislation permitting gay marriage could never pass, legislators decided to concentrate their efforts on civil unions. While the move dismayed many, for marriage proponents it didn't far enough while for those opposed it went too far, it was rationalized that civil unions would at least fulfill the court's ruling that same sex unions be treated equally with those of traditional pairings.

Thanks to Moats' proximity to the major players and events, we're treated to complete account of the behind the scenes wrangling and the public debate that resulted. We're introduced to the couples behind the legal fight, the lawyers who devoted their time, the politicians that struggled for and against civil unions, and the average citizens who weighed in on both sides. Moats skillfully weaves their stories together into a gripping drama that changed everyone involved, whether they live in Vermont or merely observed events from afar.

As Moats points out, the forces arrayed on other side brought to the fight fundamentally different worldviews. Many opposed to gay marriage or same sex civil unions relied on religious principles to make their arguments, which although may carry weight with some, crashes against the secular pillars that American society is based on.

"In confronting the issue of gay marriage, the nation confronts a paradox of liberal democracy. The dignity of the individual was a moral value that rested on religious and philosophical traditions prevailing in eighteenth-century Britain and its colonies. Yet liberal democracy lifts that value into the secular realm, where it serves as the premise for equality and justice before the law."

It's not surprising that Moats, who won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of pro-same sex unions editorials in the Rutland Herald, throws his moral support behind proponents of civil unions. So much so that Civil Wars can be a very one-sided account. Early on he writes that the battle over gay marriage "ranks, not just with the Stonewall riots and the murder of Harvey Milk as landmarks of gay history, but with Birmingham and Selma as landmarks of our growth toward a more complete democracy." It's not surprising then, to read later on, that opponents to same sex unions are described as "opportunistic politicians, impassioned religious zealots, and outright homophobes." Moats strains credibility by being unable to find even one principled opponent, or reasoned argument for opposing same sex unions, out of the tens of thousands of people involved in the debate.

Despite that, Civil Wars is a fairly engaging look at how Vermont became the first state to allow civil unions, a move that has had repercussions across the United States and advanced the debate over gay marriage to the national level. Although it will anger some, in the not too distant future civil unions -- and perhaps even gay marriage -- will be a reality everywhere. Thanks to Moats we now have an on the scene, day-by-day accounting of how the first battles were fought.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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