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Sunday, July 23, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Same-sex union: It's time to say YES

FOUR years ago on this page, we argued against legislative action to authorize gay marriages. Our position echoed a national reluctance to tamper with the institution of marriage. "For now," we said, that institution "is best left alone."

For now.

That was 1996. In the summer of 2000, it's time for this page to support equal rights for gay and lesbian members of our community, even - especially - in that most important of decisions, the commitment to share a life with another.

The fundamental issue is not about religion or lifestyle, but about equal rights for all members of society. The harsh truth is that gay friends and family members, neighbors and co-workers are being discriminated against. A gay partner can be kept away from a seriously ill loved one. At the end of a long and loving same-sex relationship, a surviving partner has no community-property rights. When gay partners split up, neither has legal protection in property or child custody.

The lesson of Vermont is a compelling one, and brings the issue once again into the public arena for careful re-examination.

On July 1, civil unions between same-sex partners became legal in Vermont, the first state to take this step. The legislature acted after the state Supreme Court ruled that gay couples were being unconstitutionally denied the benefits of marriage.

In Vermont today, same-sex partners who seek a civil union enjoy the same benefits and responsibilities as married heterosexual couples. That includes survivor benefits, taxes and medical decision-making. Also, if partners someday want to dissolve their union, they must go to family court as would any other divorcing couple. Federal benefits, such as Social Security and tax advantages or penalties, are not covered under the state law.

Even in Vermont, a state known for its progressive politics, the new civil-union law is highly controversial. That's to be expected. Being first is never easy, even when it is the right thing to do. And state-sanctioned civil unions for same-sex partners is the right thing to do.

The Washington state Legislature should enact similar legislation. As more states follow the lead of Vermont, Congress one day will be compelled to pass federal legislation granting same-sex couples full rights of marriage.

We are well aware that many readers will disagree with this editorial position. We respect their views, but having changed our own position, we suspect many others may also be ready to reconsider what is truly in the community interest. Deeper reflection by this editorial board included careful listening to young adults of the next generation of the Blethen family, which owns controlling interest of this newspaper.

Their views were clear and unanimous: Discrimination of any form should not be tolerated, and they hoped their newspaper's editorial page would step up and say so.

Several generations ago, some in the country stood up to popular sentiment and fought for the civil rights of black Americans, including the right to marry whomever they chose, a right specifically denied by the constitutions of many Southern states.

The great American project is to create a more equal society. We are not yet finished. In his opinion for the Vermont Supreme Court, Chief Justice Jeffrey Amestoy said the extension of benefits to gay and lesbian couples is "simply, when all is said and done, a recognition of our common humanity."

The time has come for this necessary next step toward true equality.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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