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A STEP OUT OF DARKNESS

The nation's uphill fight to eliminate bigotry got a significant boost with the Vermont Supreme Court's ruling that committed gay couples are entitled to the same legal protections as married heterosexuals.

The court left it to the Vermont Legislature to decide whether to do that by letting gay couples marry or by simply creating an all-encompassing domestic partnership agreement. But either way, the court's ruling will give gay couples in Vermont the most extensive set of partnership benefits anywhere in the nation.

It's an overdue move, yet one that unfortunately much of the rest of the nation has yet to take. Granting gay couples who are willing to commit to one another equality in matters ranging from taxes and benefits to hospital visitation is one more step toward eliminating one of the last forms of discrimination openly embraced by major segments of society.

The court's sweeping language -- backed by all five judges, including one who thought the ruling didn't go far enough -- established a new frame of reference by blowing through smoke screens that tried to justify discrimination by tying partnership strictly to reproduction.

As the court noted, many married couples never intend to have kids, and reproductive technology allows same-sex couples to become parents. They have a right to form stable families.

Predictably, though, the idea of treating gay couples with respect in the legal arena is not going over well in all circles.

Trying to spin a defeat as best they can, conservative groups are latching onto the fact that the court did not mandate use of the word "marriage" in affording gays equal protection under the law.

Gay-rights advocates say that could prove to be more than just a semantic distinction for gays who partner up in Vermont but then leave the state. While they would have full rights in Vermont with either a marriage law or a partnership agreement, only with the former could they press the case to have their relationships recognized in other states.

That's because the U.S. Constitution's "full faith and credit" clause ordering states to recognize other states' legal mandates might only apply to marriage because it -- but not partnership agreements -- is recognized in all 50 states.

This makes the Vermont Legislature's upcoming decision an important one in terms of advancing gay rights even more. But no matter how the lawmakers decide to proceed, the court there already has sent an important message. Sooner or later, the rest of the country -- including New York -- will have to hear it.

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