Vt. Senate Panel Advances Gay Marriage Bill

Vermont moved closer to allowing same-sex couples to marry after a state Senate committee advanced a gay marriage bill on Friday.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-0 on a measure that would make Vermont the third state to legalize same-sex marriage. The bill heads to the full senate next week.

Gov. Jim Douglas said he believes in traditional marriage but would not say whether he will veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

"I've made my position quite clear that I believe marriage is and ought to remain the union of a man and a woman, that our civil unions law affords equality of opportunities and rights under state law and that that should suffice," he said, according to The Associated Press.

If passed, the measure would exempt clergy from performing same-sex marriages based on their religious beliefs and bar lawsuits against those who refuse to perform such unions.

The approval follows an intense week of debates. Legislative hearings began Monday and more than 500 people on both sides of the gay marriage debate turned out at the Statehouse on Wednesday for a public hearing on the bill.

Religious leaders at Wednesday's hearing were divided on the issue.

Traditional marriage is "under attack by secular humanists who change the word of God to serve their own political purposes," said the Rev. Roland Smith of the First Baptist Church in Fair Haven, according to AP.

On the other side, the Rev. Linda Maloney of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church argued that she wants to serve everyone equally.

"And yet because I preside over marriages as an agent of the state, I am not permitted to give equal respect to the dignity of all couples," she said, as reported by AP.

Opponents of the bill have demanded that the measure be placed before voters. But the senate committee rejected an amendment that would have put the marriage question to a statewide referendum next year.