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Engines of Liberty

The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law

By David Cole
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  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Engines of Liberty by David Cole

Engines of Liberty (2016) is an exploration into the influence citizens can have on government, and the changes that can be brought about through activism, the spreading of information and the mobilization of one’s peers. When it comes to the big issues of our time, like gay marriage, guns and human rights, it’s passionate citizens who are speaking up for what they believe in and bringing about change.

Key idea 1 of 8

A dispute over child custody led gay rights activists to win the right to marry in the state of Vermont.

Civil rights activists were cheering in 2015 when gay marriage was made legal in the United States, but this landmark decision didn’t happen overnight. To find out how we got there, we must go back in time and look to the small state of Vermont.

Surprisingly, the issue of gay marriage in Vermont actually began as a child custody case.

Susan Bellemare and Susan Hamilton lived together in Vermont as parents to Hamilton’s biological son, Collin, who was fifteen months old. But, in 1989, tragedy struck when Hamilton died in a fatal car accident.

After the accident, Hamilton’s parents didn’t like the idea of Collin continuing to live with Susan Bellemare, so they filed a lawsuit to gain custody of their grandchild.

It took two years of litigation, but Bellemare won the case thanks to a will that Hamilton had prepared, stating that her partner should continue to raise Collin in the event of her death. Without this document, it’s likely that Bellemare would have lost custody of her son.

This case made it clear that gay partners had very few rights in the eyes of the law, and it spurred a group of activists to begin campaigning for change.

Among them were three couples who sued the State of Vermont for refusing to grant them marriage licenses.

These couples were well prepared, and they defied all the negative gay stereotypes. They had respectable jobs; they were in steady, long-term relationships; and two of the couples were raising children.

It took years of political lobbying and court battles, but in December of 1999, the Supreme Court of Vermont made its decision: According to the state constitution, civil unions between a same-sex couple must be treated the same as any other union.

But it didn’t end there. Activists continued to lobby and, in 2009, the Vermont House of Representatives voted on the issue of gay marriage. It was a narrow victory, but same-sex marriage was legalized in the state.

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