The House Judiciary Committee heard moving testimony last week from one of the lawyers who brought the suit that led to the Supreme Court's decision requiring the state to provide equal benefits to gay and lesbian couples.
The lawyer, Susan Murray, described the pain of people who must listen to frequent and repeated public denunciations of their morality and character. "It's really painful to hear people say, 'You're immoral. You're an abomination,'" Murray said.
Gay and lesbian Vermonters have heard a full range of denunciation in the past several weeks. It is something they have heard all their lives, beginning with common school yard taunts and culminating in the passionate condemnations heard at the two public hearings inside the State House.
Murray used the words of Episcopal Bishop Mary Adelia McLeod in saying, "Gays and lesbians are the only group that are still politically correct to kick."
Sometimes, the attacks on gays are plainly mean-spirited and oblivious to the pain they cause. In some cases an unholy mix of anger and fear suffuse the language of those who condemn gays and lesbians as immoral. These attacks are the equivalent of the fire hoses and police dogs that were turned on civil rights workers in the South in an earlier day. They are a reminder that seeking justice exacts a price.
But opposition to same-sex marriage or domestic partnerships comes in many shadings, and it is useful to distinguish those who hate from those whose opposition has other origins.
Bishop Kenneth Angell has prompted resentment in asserting the Roman Catholic opposition to same-sex marriage. It's helpful, however, to realize that the Catholic position arises, not from bigotry, but from a specific teaching about sexuality, a teaching that a lot of people have difficulty with, including millions of Catholics.
It is the Catholic teaching that sex is a gift meant for the purposes of procreation and that sex indulged in for other reasons is a misuse of that gift. Thus, sex outside of marriage is not condoned. Even sex within marriage when the possibility of procreation has been blocked by birth control is not condoned. Gay sex, in this view, does not fall into the category of permissible sex.
It is possible to disagree with this view while still recognizing it to be a legitimate doctrine of a major religion aimed at providing guidance in the chaotic realm of human sexuality. It may offer some comfort to supporters of same-sex marriage to see through to the humanity of the opposition and to recognize the reasons for opposition are not always founded in bigotry.
At the same time, opponents of same-sex marriage have an obligation to see through to the humanity of a vulnerable minority. Anyone tempted to condemn homosexuality as other than normal ought to consider that it is quite normal that within our population 5 to 10 percent - the number is not important - happen to be gay or lesbian. For each of us, it is normal to be who we are, whether we are heterosexual or homosexual. It has always been that way, and the sooner we recognize it the better.
There are among us already those eager to sharpen the swords of conflict on the issue of same-sex marriage.
But the people of Vermont are in this together. Opponents and supporters of the Supreme Court's ruling are part of the same community, and as the discussion moves forward it is important to cultivate a charitable view of those on the other side. That way, however the issue is resolved, Vermont will be a better place in the end.