An amendment to the Vermont Constitution that would more explicitly ban slavery and indentured servitude will head to voters this November after state lawmakers on Friday endorsed the concept for the second-straight biennium.
Vermont’s constitution currently says no one 21 or older should be enslaved unless they are bound by their own consent or “by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like." The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would later prohibit slavery except as punishment for a crime, but Vermont's founding document has maintained its seemingly partial prohibition to this day.
The amendment, known as Prop 2, would remove this language and replace it with a clause that says slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.
State law requires constitutional amendments to be considered in two consecutive bienniums so that they are vetted by separately elected legislatures. Both the House and Senate passed the bill overwhelming in 2019, and the Senate backed the bill again last year.
The House completed the circuit Friday, voting 139-3 in favor. Three Republicans voted against the proposal: Rep. Larry Labor (R-Morgan), Rep. Robert LaClair (R-Barre) and Rep. Brian Smith (R-Derby). None explained their no votes.
The question will now be placed on ballots for the November election and will need to receive a majority of votes.
Supporters say it's an important step in the fight for racial equality. "The amendment is simple and clear, yet powerful and profound," said Rep. Hal Colston (D-Winooski), while presenting the bill on the House floor.
Though the amendment has been almost universally supported in the legislature, a pair of constitutional scholars have questioned whether it's necessary, telling lawmakers that the existing language has always been understood as an overall ban against slavery.
But that view overlooks the reality of those who have "lived experience of being descendants of enslaved Africans," said Colston, who is Black.
"My truth, as a descendant of enslaved Africans, is that this current language gives the appearance that there may be an exception for the existence of slavery and indentured servitude," he said. "Language is powerful, and the truth shall set us free."