Vermont introduced civil unions for gay and lesbian couples nearly a decade ago. Now, the Legislature is moving toward approving marriage for same-sex couples.
Nine years ago, the debate was intense in the state House, on the campaign trail and over coffee in general stores. Some described the division as akin to a civil war in a state known for its civility.
A grass-roots campaign popped up, symbolized by black-and-white placards that read "Take Back Vermont." Some of those signs still hang on the occasional barn, and a few have gone up again this year.
A Change In Tone
In the past nine years, however, 8,900 couples have joined in civil unions, and now the debate feels different.
On a cold, early spring day, ice still washes up against the boathouse on Burlington's Lake Champlain waterfront, where Ryon Price, pastor at United Church in nearby Colchester, is out for a run.
He describes himself as an evangelical Christian and a supporter of same-sex marriage, a position that puts him at odds with some of his parishioners.
"God is in the midst of all of us, and we are all wrestling and working out our faith with fear and trembling," he says.
Chapin Spencer can't wait until the bill passes. His fiancee won't agree to a wedding until their gay and lesbian friends can also legally marry.
"It would actually be helpful for me if this passes this year, because then I can get married this fall," he says.
Burlington is a college town, long known for its progressive politics. Thirty miles to the north, St. Albans is more conservative. In 2000, it was one of the towns where opposition to civil unions was strongest.
Today, there is skepticism about same-sex marriage. Mayor Marty Manahan says he reflects the views of many people in his part of the state.
"I think they should be able to have legislation put in place that protects everybody's benefits and everything," he says. "But I think marriage is a sacrament and [a] very close and particular definition to a lot of people."
Dan Meunier doesn't think his neighbors would approve of same-sex marriage any more than he does.
"I don't think they're for it, that's for sure. It's quite a drastic change, so I don't know," he says.
But even here, where a hearing on civil unions nine years ago was anything but civil, there are signs of change.
Arlene Reynolds uses a walker as she makes her way down Main Street in a biting wind. She says she's changed her mind.
"I think they should be allowed to do what they want to do," she says. "I don't think it's fair. I think they should live as they want to."
No one's sure what will happen at the Statehouse. The state Senate has already endorsed the marriage bill by a 26-to-4 vote. The Vermont House is expected to approve the bill soon.
Republican Gov. Jim Douglas says he'll veto it. That would leave the outcome up to a tight override vote in the House.
Ross Sneyd reports for Vermont Public Radio.