Vt. lawmakers take testimony on removing slavery from state constitution

Published: Apr. 4, 2019 at 11:51 AM EDT
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Vermonters looking to remove references of slavery from the Vermont Constitution testified at the Statehouse Thursday.

Although Vermont was the first state to abolish slavery, language in the state constitution still references exceptions -- exceptions that were later superseded by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

About a dozen people took to the podium Thursday, not only advocating for removing the term slavery, but also other references like "indentured servitude."

"Having any language that keeps slavery in the Vermont Constitution sends a very clear message to the people of color that we are not safe in Vermont, that justice has not been served for us," said Rachel Wilson of Woodbury.

"Whether it has been immigration, cannabis legalization, the fight for women's rights to choose concerning their own bodies -- nothing has deterred us here in Vermont for our fight for what is right. Let's continue to fight against oppression and criminalization of black and brown and poor folks in this state," said Mark Hughes of Burlington.

"It is time to make certain that Vermont's Constitution -- the basis of our laws -- does not in any way provide a basis for inequity or inequality between persons or groups of people," said Sylvia Knight of Burlington.

The process of amending the state constitution is complicated and can only be introduced once every four years. It's a process Senate Government Operations chair Jeanette White, D-Windham, says was made to be difficult by Vermont's founding fathers.

"Slavery is outlawed by the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. So it isn't going to make a difference in the law, but if it makes a difference in the perception in the way people view it than how much do we change it?" she said.

It starts with a public hearing like Thursday's. The Senate Government Operations Committee will then decide if it should be put before the full Senate. If it makes it that far, the Senate has to approve it with a two-thirds majority. Then it will go to the House, where it has to pass by a simple majority. The measure would then be brought back in 2021, a new biennium, for the House and Senate to consider again. Following that, the measure would be put out for a statewide vote.

Colorado voters last year approved a similar constitutional amendment, and Utah lawmakers have taken up a comparable measure this year.