The Difference between Gay Marriage and Civil Unions
by Kathy Belge
You hear the politicians saying it all the time. “I support Civil Unions, but not gay marriage.” What exactly does this mean? Some even say they support equal rights for gays and lesbians, but not gay marriage. Is this possible? And why do gays and lesbians want marriage so badly when they can have civil unions?
First of all, What is Marriage? When people marry, they tend to do so for reasons of love and commitment. But marriage is also a legal status, which comes with rights and responsibilities. Marriage establishes a legal kinship between you and your spouse. It is a relationship that is recognized across cultures, countries and religions.
What is a Civil Union? Civil Unions exist in only a handful of places: Vermont, New Jersey and Connecticut. California and Oregon have domestic partnership laws that offer many of the same rights as civil unions.
Vermont civil unions were created in 2000 to provide legal protections to gays and lesbians in relationships in that state because gay marriage is not an option. The protections do not extend beyond the border of Vermont and no federal protections are included with a Civil Union. Civil Unions offer some of the same rights and responsibilites as marriage, but only on a state level.
What about Domestic partnership? Some states and municipalities have domestic partnership registries, but no domestic partnership law is the same. Some, like the recently passed California domestic partnership laws comes with many rights and responsibilities. Others, like the one in Washington offer very few benefits to the couple.
What are some of the differences between Civil Unions and Gay Marriage?
Recognition in other states: Even though each state has its own laws around marriage, if someone is married in one state and moves to another, their marriage is legally recognized. For example, Oregon marriage law applies to people 17 and over. In Washington state, the couple must be 18 to wed. However, Washington will recognize the marriage of two 17 year olds from Oregon who move there. This is not the case with Civil Unions. If someone has a Civil Union in Vermont, that union is not recognized in any other state. As a matter of fact, two states, Connecticut and Georgia, have ruled that they do not have to recognize civil unions performed in Vermont, because their states have no such legal category. As gay marriages become legal in other states, this status may change.
Dissolving a Civil Union v. Divorce:
Vermont has no residency requirement for Civil Unions. That means two people from any other state or country can come there and have a civil union ceremony. If the couple breaks up and wishes to dissolve the union, one of them must be a resident of Vermont for one year before the Civil Union can be dissolved in family court. Married couples can divorce in any state they reside, no matter where they were married.
A United States citizen who is married can sponsor his or her non-American spouse for immigration into this country. Those with Civil Unions have no such privilege.
Civil Unions are not recognized by the federal government, so couples would not be able to file joint-tax returns or be eligible for tax breaks or protections the government affords to married couples.
The General Accounting Office in 1997 released a list of 1,049 benefits and protections available to heterosexual married couples (*). These benefits range from federal benefits, such as survivor benefits through Social Security, sick leave to care for ailing partner, tax breaks, veterans benefits and insurance breaks. They also include things like family discounts, obtaining family insurance through your employer, visiting your spouse in the hospital and making medical decisions if your partner is unable to. Civil Unions protect some of these rights, but not all of them.
But can’t a lawyer set all this up for gay and lesbian couples?
No. A lawyer can set up some things like durable power of attorney, wills and medical power of attorney. There are several problems with this, however.
1. It costs thousands of dollars in legal fees. A simple marriage license, which usually costs under $100 would cover all the same rights and benefits.
2. Any of these can be challenged in court. As a matter of fact, more wills are challenged than not. In the case of wills, legal spouses always have more legal power than any other family member.
3. Marriage laws are universal. If someone’s husband or wife is injured in an accident, all you need to do is show up and say you’re his or her spouse. You will not be questioned. If you show up at the hospital with your legal paperwork, the employees may not know what to do with you. If you simply say, “He’s my husband,” you will immediately be taken to your spouse’s side.
Defense of Marriage Law
Even with lesbian and gay marriages being performed and recognized in some states, the Federal Defense of Marriage Law prohibits the federal government from recognizing gay and lesbian relationships. This puts gay and lesbian couples who are married in a legal limbo. How do they file their tax returns? Do they have to pay the tax on their partner’s health insurance? How do they fill out legal and other forms, single or married?
Creating Civil Unions creates a separate and unequal status for some of America’s citizens. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that creating a separate class for gay and lesbian citizens is not permissible and that is why they have voted that only marriage equals marriage. The precedent was set with Brown v. The Board of Education regarding segregation in public education. Ironically, Massachusetts marriage law went into effect on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.
The United States Constitution guarantees equality for all. As you can see, marriage and civil unions are not the same. Creating equal access to marriage is the only fair way to ensure equality for gay and straight couples alike.
* Benefits & Protections unavailable to GLBT persons without marriage:
Here are some of the legal rights that married couples have and gays and lesbians are denied:
- Joint parental rights of children
- Joint adoption
- Status as “next-of-kin” for hospital visits and medical decisions
- Right to make a decision about the disposal of loved ones remains
- Immigration and residency for partners from other countries
- Crime victims recovery benefits
- Domestic violence protection orders
- Judicial protections and immunity
- Automatic inheritance in the absence of a will
- Public safety officers death benefits
- Spousal veterans benefits
- Social Security
- Joint filing of tax returns
- Wrongful death benefits for surviving partner and children
- Bereavement or sick leave to care for partner or children
- Child support
- Joint Insurance Plans
- Tax credits including: Child tax credit, Hope and lifetime learning credits
- Deferred Compensation for pension and IRAs
- Estate and gift tax benefits
- Welfare and public assistance
- Joint housing for elderly
- Credit protection
- Medical care for survivors and dependents of certain veterans
These are just a few of the 1400 state and federal benefits that gays and lesbians are denied by not being able to marry. Most of these benefits cannot be privately arranged or contracted for within the legal system.