Vermont gives equal rights to all gay couples

THE HIGHEST court in the state of Vermont has ruled that homosexual couples should enjoy the same legal rights as heterosexual couples, but stopped short of sanctioning gay marriages, saying that should be a decision for the state's legislature.

In the ruling, handed down this week, the court said: "The state is constitutionally required to extend to same-sex couples the common benefits and protections that flow from marriage under Vermont law."

The north-east state of Vermont is regarded as one of the most liberal in the country. It is the first state to extend absolute equality under the law to homosexual couples, although California and Hawaii recognise "domestic partnerships" between gays that carry many legal rights.

A court in Hawaii has ruledthat a 1998 amendment to the state's constitution that excluded gay marriages also excluded recognition of absolute equal rights for gay couples.

This week's ruling in Vermont derived from a lawsuit filed two years ago by three homosexual couples who had been refused marriage licences by their town clerks. The couples claimed their inability to get married deprived them of more than 1,300 benefits.

While some commentators argued that the ruling removed the legal obstacles to gay marriage, at least in Vermont, others said it made approval for gay marriage unnecessary, because gay couples would now have the same legal protections as heterosexuals.

At least 30 states have specifically outlawed gay marriages and the US Congress has passed a law allowing states to disregard gay marriages which have been sanctioned by other states.

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