Vermont Starts Gay Unions

Lois Farnham and Holly Puterbaugh today said they are happy to be among the very first same-sex couples in the country to be legally joined in a ceremony similar to marriage.

“Since Saturday, I can now introduce Holly as my spouse,” Farnham told ABCNEWS' "Good Morning America."

Farnham and Puterbaugh of South Burlington, Vt., were among the first couples to allow the state to join legally in a civil union. Technically, they’re not marriages, but civil unions will give gays and lesbian couples many of the same rights, benefits and responsibilities of marriage.

Legal Partners at Last

“We will now be legally related,” says Farnham, 54, a school nurse supervisor. “We can sign for each other on important documents. At the hospital, we will be responsible for each other’s deaths. Many places also offer discounts to couples that we will now be eligible for.

“After 27 1/2 years, it’s nice to be able to call someone your spouse,” she adds.

Dozens of same-sex couples were expected to be united under the Vermont law — the first of its kind in the United States.

It’s being hailed as a landmark event by gay-rights groups nationwide, and celebrated by others as well. In fact, the municipal hall in Brattleboro, Vt., was open right after midnight this morning to grant civil union licenses as early as possible.

But Michelle Cummings, the president of Take it to the People, which opposes the state’s new stance on civil unions, said other routes could have been created for the couples rather than the recognition of civil unions.

“We believe that traditional marriage is the best option for marriage,” Cummings told Good Morning America. “We believe they could have obtained those rights and benefits without the creation of of parallel marriage.”

Farnham disagreed.

“I understand why they object to it,” Farnham told Good Morning America. “I don’t understand how Holly and I being legally connected can interfere with a heterosexual couple’s marriage.”

Defiance Greets New Law

Not everybody is happy. Some of Vermont’s 250 town and city clerks have vowed to defy the law and not grant civil unions. One has threatened to quit her job over the issue.

Corinth Town Clerk Susan Fortunati has no intention of complying with the new law.

“I feel the law is an encouragement of perversion and immorality and it’s going to lead to the demise of our youth and the more rapid destruction of our families and the ultimate downfall of this country,” Fortunati says.

A local Catholic pastor recently sent a letter to members of his flock who might be empowered to perform civil unions, asking them to first consider philosophical conflicts with their faith.

A spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Diocese in Burlington says the letter is consistent with the diocesean position. She notes that Bishop Kenneth A. Angell is calling for religious people to pray for a constitutional amendment that would bar civil unions. The bishop also wants prayer for people he believes will be morally tested.

“I am saddened by yet another cultural weakening of God’s matrimonial plan for man and woman,” Angell says in a written statement released this week. “I will be praying this weekend for all concerned. I will be praying especially for those town clerks, justices of the peace, innkeepers, and all people of conscience who are being so directly and sorely tested by the legality and morality of civil unions.”

‘A Big Opportunity’

But where some are fretting, gay and lesbian groups are rejoicing.

“It’s the first time that any state has so completely recognized legally the relationship between lesbian and gay couples,” says Paula Ettelbrick of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “This is the first big opportunity, the first opportunity to show that gay couples are as committed in their relationships as everybody else.”

“All of the horrible things that opponents say will happen are not going to happen,” adds David Smith, a spokesman for The Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay rights group in America. “Hopefully, by example, many parts of the country and many people will become more comfortable with the idea.”

Farnham and Puterbaugh, 55, a math professor at the University of Vermont, fought for three years in court for their right to unite. They and two other couples sued in 1997 when town clerks denied them marriage licenses. In December, the Vermont Supreme Court sided with them and instructed the state legislature to ensure gay and lesbian couples had the same rights as married heterosexuals.

State lawmakers considered allowing gays and lesbians to marry but settled on the idea of civil unions as a way to satisfy the court's order while not provoking widespread public opposition. The legislation was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Howard Dean in March.

A state Superior Court judge last week denied a last minute attempt to block the law from taking effect. Municipal clerks in Corinth and Fairfield claimed providing civil union licenses would violate their religious beliefs, but the judge said they may appoint underlings to issue the licenses.

Efforts to create same-sex unions have had a more difficult time elsewhere. In May, Colorado became the 33rd state to ban same-sex marriages.

The national debate began in 1991 when three homosexual couples in Hawaii sued, charging the state with discriminating against them by denying them marriage licenses. Although the Hawaii Supreme Court sided with them, voters approved a change to the state constitution preserving traditional marriage.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.