A proposed amendment to clarify the prohibition of slavery in the Vermont Constitution earned unanimous support during a public hearing in the legislature Thursday night, with speakers painting it as an important step in the fight for racial equality.
"This is going to serve as the foundation for addressing systemic racism in our state laws and institutions," said Mark Hughes, executive director of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, which has pushed hard for the amendment.
Vermont is often credited with being the first state in the U.S. to ban slavery. But the prohibition, enshrined in its constitution in 1777, was a partial one, applying only to people over age 21 while not protecting those "bound by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.”
The 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution would prohibit slavery except as punishment for a crime nearly 100 years later. But the Vermont Constitution has maintained its partial prohibition to this day.
The proposed amendment, known as Prop 2, strikes these caveats — along with any mention of slavery in the state's founding document — so that there is no room for ambiguity. Supporters say the change is long overdue.
"Our constitution reminds us what is important," said Keren Sita, who was among 15 speakers in favor of the amendment at Thursday's hearing. "If the freedom of Black people is what is important to this state, then our constitution will reflect that, and our children's children will be able to look back and know that it's been reflected."
Numerous other states have passed similar legislation in recent years, including Colorado and Utah.
Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, a South Carolina resident and member of the Abolish Slavery National Network, said it would be "especially meaningful" for Vermont to join this list, given that the so-called "exemption clause" appears to have originated in the Green Mountain State.
"It would be an important way to set right a historical wrong, to prevent future abuses, to set an example for our nation and the possibility of change at the federal level, and to start a discussion about addressing criminal justice today in more humane and constructive ways," he said.
State law requires constitutional amendments to be considered in two consecutive bienniums so that separately-elected legislatures have a chance to vet the changes. Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the proposal in 2019, and the Senate approved it again last year.
The House Government Operations Committee, which presided over Thursday's public hearing, plans to advance the bill to the full House on Friday. If the chamber endorses the amendment again — as is widely expected — then it will be placed on ballots this November.
The legislature is also now considering Prop 5, which would enshrine abortion rights into the constitution.