MONTPELIER, Vermont -- After impassioned pleas from gay and lesbian legislators sharing their own love stories in front of hundreds of partisans packing the chamber, the Vermont House on Thursday advanced a bill that would allow same-sex couples to marry.
Rep. Jason Lorber, D-Burlington, told of seeing his and his partner's civil union announcement in the newspaper in a "civil union" category separate from the marriage announcements.
"Why do we have to differentiate?" a weeping Lorber asked his House colleagues. "Why do we have to say you are different? Why can't we just say 'Congratulations"' when same-sex couples wed.
After about five hours of debate, the House gave the bill preliminary approval on a 95-52 roll call vote. The margin was less than the two-thirds majority that would be needed for the 150-member House to override Gov. Jim Douglas' promised veto. The Senate previously passed the bill 26-4, so a veto override is seen as likely there.
Opponents of the measure spoke of their respect for its advocates. One, Rep. Albert "Sonny" Audette, D-South Burlington, expressed sadness at having concluded he was required by his church to vote no.
"I am a devout Catholic," Audette said. "My religion at this point would not want me to vote for this. I wish that I could and I hope for the best and I congratulate the people who are trying to get this through."
Only Massachusetts and Connecticut permit same-sex marriage. California, which briefly allowed it before a voter initiative in November repealed it, allows domestic partnerships, as do a handful of other states.
Rep. Duncan Kilmartin, R-Newport, said he feared that people who oppose same-sex marriage would have their beliefs impinged upon by the law. He said a Massachusetts court had ruled against parents who objected to their children being taught in a public school that gay and lesbian couples have "an acceptable lifestyle."
"You do not have the right to demand that we approve same-sex marriage, even if you pass a law saying it's the law of Vermont," Kilmartin said.
Rep. Rick Hube, R-Londonderry, said he favored limited government and maximizing the ability for people to choose their own lifestyles. He said he had voted against Vermont's first-in-the-nation civil union law in 2000 but had changed his thinking.
"This to me is not about religion, civil rights or the institution of marriage," Hube said. "This to me is about being true to a set of principles. People should have the opportunity to make choices and have control over their own lives."
The vote capped a day that featured a noon rally on the Statehouse steps by opponents of same-sex marriage who demanded a statewide referendum that would be nonbinding under the Vermont Constitution.
"Any issue this big deserves a vote of the people before it becomes the law of the people," said same-sex marriage opponent Craig Bensen, leader of a group called Take It to the People. "Let Vermont vote!"
Critics of the referendum plan said they worried that Vermont would be inundated with out-of-state campaign money and "robo-calls" from national groups.
They said that happened in California leading up to a vote there that reversed a decision from its highest court legalizing same-sex marriage.
The House defeated an amendment to hold a referendum after an hour's debate.
The House must vote again on the bill Friday in its third and final reading.
Douglas, who has argued that marriage should be limited to one man and one woman, wasn't pushing fellow Republicans to oppose the bill. "This is such a tough, personal, emotional decision that I have not told people what to do," he said earlier Thursday.
New Jersey and New Hampshire also offer civil unions, which provide many of the same rights that come with marriage. New York recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. The Iowa Supreme Court has heard arguments on a marriage equality suit and has announced it will release a much-anticipated ruling on the state's gay marriage ban on Friday. Thirty states have gay marriage bans in their constitutions.