uth Charlesworth is Executive Director of Takes to the People, a grassroots campaign in Vermont opposing same-sex-union legislation
National Review: The Vermont Senate passed a civil-union bill this morning. What do you make of the version that passed?
Charlesworth: The bill did have a religious exemption included in it. It did not include the residency requirement we were hoping for that would have kept people from flying in for a weekend to get married.
National Review: The bill goes to the House next. What do you expect will happen?
Charlesworth: In the House, we are four votes shy of killing the entire bill. We're hoping to be able to contact twelve of the most likely House members to change their mind and change their vote. The majority of them want to, it's so very clear. We really feel that they want to preserve traditional marriage. The sense of our representatives, especially in the Senate, is that they are there to protect the minority, so they are not going to listen to the majority of Vermont. They're very, very well aware that from all the polls, all the phone calls. If you get nine phone calls you should listen they have hundreds, maybe thousands at this point, asking that traditional marriage be respected here in Vermont and kept. But they say that they were not elected to follow the crowd. This, despite the fact that their constituents certainly have made it known that they want to preserve traditional marriage in Vermont.
The other concern is on a national level. We've tried to keep this as grassroots as possible, and it has been. It's amazing the people that have come forth with their five-dollar donations. It's the many five-dollars that have really helped keep this in the forefront. People do not want to be seen as the first state in the United States and the first place in the world to have same-sex marriage. And civil union, even though it's called "civil union," is everything but the m-word. I mean it has to be performed and sanctioned by a justice of the peace or clergyman. They're concerned also about the educational aspect of it. There's been a $12,000 grant from the governor's office for teaching about homosexual behavior and, I guess, part of the health education curriculum for grades in grammar schools for. People are saying, "I'm concerned. I'm concerned that our kids, who are in pubescence, who have got an identity crisis or think they do, are going to be confused." It's far beyond the three couples that have sued for marriage licenses. It's the overturning of a culture. And Vermonters want to have a say in that.
National Review: Can you speak to the opposition – you talk about how your movement is grass-roots or is the process being circumvented by national special-interest groups?
Charlesworth: I think that this has to be a national special interest, because when I was attending the testimony, the lawyer for the opposition…went absolutely ballistic at any question at all that would in any way threaten the residency situation. In other words, she did not want a residency requirement hooked on and actually said that that was discriminatory. And this Senate judiciary committee was so outraged. Senator Sears, I thought, was going to have a small stroke, because they have gone out of their way to accommodate in every way possible. And Senator Sears said, now I know how it feels to be discriminated against and be considered homophobic. One of the lawyers on the House judiciary committee said they were hoping to overturn the federal Defense of Marriage Act. So, this affects far more than Vermont. The update right now is it goes to the House. It could be killed in the House and that could be the end of it.
NR: Do you have a feel for what the odds are for that to happen?
Charlesworth: I don't know. I really don't. It could be as high as 50-50. And there are four definite votes that we need. I don't know if it's going to happen.
NR: What's the effort like at this point?
Charlesworth: The effort is just contacting our House representatives and telling them how the people in Vermont feel about it. Now we have been contacted by people outside of Vermont who are so threatened over the fact that they don't want this to happen in their state. They've encouraged us to please fight the good fight. However, at this point I think people need to recognize the national implications here. I think our Senate has finally grasped that. But, I think we can't emphasize it too greatly. Again, what do the people want? The struggle as I see it is, why can't the majority of voices of Vermonters be heard? If, indeed, the majority of Vermonters said, "This is what we want," you know, I can live with that. But the fact of the matter is that our voices cannot be heard. The governor himself said that he would sign the bill immediately, and the calls that have gone to him have backed up the line. I found out the other day that the governor has a Commission of Women, and its newsletter is pure advocacy for the gay and lesbian task force… Excuse me, freedom to marry task force. There are two things that they are really, really pushing. They do not want parental notification of a minor for abortion, which is something that we've been trying so hard to get. The other is, please vote and let your senators, representatives, legislators know that we want civil unions. This is the governor's Commission on Women.
NR: What's the purpose of the "Commission of Women?"
Charlesworth: The Commission of Women is supposed to represent what women want across the state. But this is not the case.
NR: How much talk was there of a piece yesterday in the New York Times and another in the USA Today about the rise of cohabitation? How much concern is there that this is not only taking a step further toward gay marriage but institutionalize cohabitation between heterosexuals?
Charlesworth: It definitely is… what it's looking at is giving various models of institutionalizing marriage. In other words, there are couples who are co-habitating that want the same rights as the gay and lesbian couples, but they don't want to get married but be recognized as an institution. Well, you can go on and on and on. That was one of the arguments. Marriage between a man and a woman is a commitment for a particular reason and is also considered in many religious faiths "sacred" and is also for the protection of women and children. Right? If you get a divorce, the man can't be an absentee father. In the marriage sense, we can do something. What's happening here is a definite weakening. We have institutions here in Vermont, like IBM, the University of Vermont, the city of Burlington, who give what we call a "domestic partner" benefits. And they will give the domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples, but they won't give it to heterosexuals because heterosexuals can get married. Is that discriminatory? What happens is, if we don't have a value system, if we don't have a criterion whereby we say marriage is between a man and a woman, protection of the family is at risk this determines the whole health of the society.
And so, once that breaks down you're really going to have a fractured society and culture to deal with. There's going to be no rules. There's going to be no limits as far as what is right and what is wrong as far as the practice of sexual activity goes. I was reading in the paper yesterday about a man who was arrested for having sex with animals in Connecticut. Where are we going? Right now, that's against the law. That's hideous, but who's to say? I'm frustrated. I'm here with this awesome job as executive director of Take It to the People and I just feel that the whole democratic process here in Vermont has been terribly eroded.
NR: How did your organization get started and involved in this?
Charlesworth: Our organization started in November of 1997. It was at the time that Hawaii was fighting to overturn their law of same-sex marriage. We became aware at the time that Hawaii, Alaska, and Vermont were cited as the most likely places where this could happen. What was suggested to us at the time was to form a grass roots organization very similar to the Hawaii Coalition. We're not a coalition actually. We're a single organization, but we're made a very diverse group. Some people are faith-affiliated, others have no faith at all. One of the things we do believe in strongly is marriage as the fundamental cell of society. We believe in traditional marriage, marriage between one man and one woman. We have tried so hard in the most appropriate and respectful way to bring this awareness to Vermonters and to our legislators and to the House and to the Senate. It's like banging your head against a stone wall.
NR: In dealing with the legislators?
Charlesworth: Yes. The House is more leaning towards what we believe than is the Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee… there's only 2 people on that committee who felt that they could listen to what we had to say and that we had something important to say as Vermonters.
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