(Photo: AP Images / Toby Talbot)
MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Nine years after becoming the first state to permit civil unions, Vermont moved a step toward legalizing gay marriage Friday.
A bill that would allow same-sex unions was introduced in the Legislature, causing a crowd of about several hundred supporters to gather at the Statehouse in celebration.
"This really is a great day and a part of moving forward to a time when all Vermont couples will be treated equally under our laws," said a sponsor, Rep. Mark Larson.
A similar bill is expected to be introduced later in the state Senate.
The House legislation has 59 sponsors, none of them Republican, though some GOP lawmakers have said they'll vote for the bill, Larson said.
"I know that there's broad support in the House," he said.
Despite the enthusiasm, it's unclear if the measure will see any action this session, with lawmakers preoccupied with the state's fiscal crisis that has led to voluntary pay cuts, court closings and Gov. Jim Douglas's proposal to lay off more than 600 state workers.
"We're still trying to decide whether it's something that we would do this year," said Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith, who supports the bill.
Supporters don't expect the debate over gay marriage to be as rancorous as the one over civil unions, which triggered a yearlong battle and the ballot-box defeat of some supportive lawmakers.
In nine years, the atmosphere in Vermont has changed, said Rep. David Zuckerman, a co-sponsor from the Progressive Party.
"Nothing significant changed for many, many Vermonters nine years ago. There was this great fear. And what we've really seen in the last nine years is that fear was unfounded," he said.
Douglas, who met privately with supporters of the bill Friday, doesn't support allowing gay marriage but listened to their concerns, spokesman Stephen Wark said. The Republican governor thinks state government's focus should be on the ailing economy, and the budget cuts, falling revenues and rising unemployment, Wark said.
Larson said lawmakers can do both.
"We have work we need to get done as a state. Part of it is this work. This is important work for Vermont families, just like economic issues are important work for Vermont families," he said. "So we can do it all."
Vermont was joined Friday by Wyoming in legislative action on same-sex marriage.
The Wyoming House killed a bill that would have allowed voters to decide whether to amend the state constitution to deny state recognition of same-sex marriages. The measure failed on a vote of 35-25 after emotional debate.
Meanwhile, a judge in New Jersey ruled that gay marriages performed outside the state are recognized there for the purpose of divorce.
State Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson's ruling clears the way for a lesbian couple who married in Canada to split.
Jacobson said New Jersey, which doesn't allow gays to marry, has a long history of recognizing marriages that are valid where they were performed.