The difference between civil unions and marriage

Not too long ago, I had no idea about equality and how it affects the LGBTQQA community. Not only had I been raised Pentecostal, but I worked for a brief time for a Baptist church. I think we all know that I have grown a ton since then. Not only do I fully embrace equality for everyone, but I have come to realize that religion comes in many shapes and forms. Most of all, I’ve had the see on a personal level just how mean, hurtful and closed-minded the world can be. As such, I make it a point to always keep up-to-date on civil rights issues.

Even so, I continue to find out new facts and information every day in regards to the battle for equality. I also find that most people really don’t have any idea just how repressed members of the LGBTQQA community really are. I don’t think any less of them for that, it’s just that they haven’t had access to the information, yet. In fact, most people are appalled and angry when they realized this kind of discrimination still occurs in the US.

Recently, I saw a blurb for a book that talked about a couple getting gay married and it happened to be in a state that only allows civil unions. First off, the wordage ‘gay married’ has become somewhat of a hot button lately.This is something that I was recently enlightened of myself, which is just an example of how I am still learning new things all the time. Why is it necessary to add the word ‘gay’ to it? It’s not like a gay man would say, “I am going to eat my gay dinner. Then I am going on a gay job. Then I’ll take a gay shower.” I pray for the day where we can just say married and that would be it, that there would be no need to signify anything more. The second thing about the blurb that bothered me, was that they called it marriage as opposed to civil union.

I’m sure some of you are wondering why it’s such a big deal and that perhaps I’m being a bit nit-picky. Truthfully, I really wish that were the case, but it’s not. And please don’t think I’m undermining civil unions, either. They are still a huge step in the fight for equality. So, I still see them as a huge victory. That being said, they aren’t the same as a legal marriage and I think it does a disservice if we don’t address that topic.

I found this at the GLAD site. While they have this information available as a downloadable pdf version, I thought I would also post it here, as well. So what follows are not my own words, but rather the great people of GLAD:


Civil Marriage v. Civil Unions

What’s the difference?

(Updated December 2011)

Framing the conversation: What’s really at stake?

First, let’s be clear. This discussion is about substance—not symbols. The human stakes are enormous.
This document explains why civil marriage, and not civil unions, is the only way to make sure gay and
lesbian couples have all of the same legal protections as other married couples.
Second, the discussion is about ending governmental discrimination against gay and lesbian families with
respect to civil marriage and its legal protections and responsibilities—not about any religious rite of
marriage. Every faith is and will remain free to set its own rules about who can marry and on what terms.
Third, marriage is many things to many people. But it is also a legal institution in which governmental
discrimination has no place.

Let’s compare civil marriage as a legal institution to civil unions as a legal institution.

What is marriage?

Marriage is a unique legal status conferred by and recognized by governments the world over. It brings
with it a host of reciprocal obligations, rights, and protections. Yet it is more than the sum of its legal
parts. It is also a cultural institution. The word itself is a fundamental protection, conveying clearly that
you and your life partner love each other, are united and belong by each other’s side. It represents the
ultimate expression of love and commitment between two people and everyone understands that. No
other word has that power, and no other word can provide that protection.

What is a civil union?

A civil union is a legal status created by the state of Vermont in 2000 and subsequently by the states of
Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Illinois, Delaware and Hawaii. It provides legal
protection to couples at the state law level, but omits federal protections as well as the dignity, clarity,
security and power of the word “marriage.”

What are some of the limitations of civil unions?

Civil unions are different from marriage, and that difference has wide-ranging implications that make the
two institutions unequal. Here is a quick look at some of the most significant differences:

Portability:

Marriages are respected state to state for all purposes, but questions remain about how civil unions will
be treated in other states since very few states have civil unions.

Ending a Civil Union:

If you are married, you can get divorced in any state in which you are a resident. But if states continue to
disrespect civil unions, there is no way to end the relationship other than by establishing residency in a
state that respects the civil union.

Federal Benefits:

According to a 1997 GAO report, civil marriage brings with it at least 1,138 legal protections and
responsibilities from the federal government, including the right to take leave from work to care for afamily member, the right to sponsor a spouse for immigration purposes, and Social Security survivor
benefits that can make a difference between old age in poverty and old age in security. Civil unions bring
none of these critical legal protections.

Taxes & Public Benefits for the Family:

Because the federal government does not respect civil unions, a couple with a civil union will be in a kind
of limbo with regard to governmental functions performed by both state and federal governments, such as
taxation, pension protections, provision of insurance for families, and means-tested programs like
Medicaid. Even when states try to provide legal protections, they may be foreclosed from doing so in joint
federal/state programs.

Filling out forms:

Every day, we fill out forms that ask us whether we are married or single. People joined in a civil union
don’t fit into either category. People with civil unions should be able to identify themselves as a single
family unit, but misrepresenting oneself on official documents can be considered fraud and carries
potential serious criminal penalties.

Separate & Unequal — Second-Class Status:

Even if there were no substantive differences in the way the law treated marriages and civil unions, the
fact that a civil union remains a separate status just for gay people represents real and powerful
inequality. We’ve been down this road before in this country and should not kid ourselves that a separate
institution just for gay people is a just solution here either. Our constitution requires legal equality for all.
Including gay and lesbian couples within existing marriage laws is the fairest and simplest thing to do.
How real are these differences between marriage and civil unions, given that a
federal law and some state laws discriminate against all marriages of same-sex
couples?

Right now, a federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) denies recognition of same-sex unions
conferred by any state for purposes of all federal programs and requirements. Only married same-sex
couples have the right to challenge this discrimination, and, in fact, GLAD has filed a federal lawsuit to do
just that. For more information see www.glad.org/doma. If GLAD wins this lawsuit, or if Congress repeals
DOMA, then married same sex-couples will have access to the 1138 laws that pertain to marriage, but
civil union couples will still not have this access.

About 40 state laws have laws and/or constitutional amendments that prevent same-sex couples from
marrying. Using the term “marriage” rather than “civil union” is an essential first step to opening the door
and addressing whether continued governmental discrimination against civil marriages of gay and lesbian
people makes sense.

Marriage and civil unions remain different, both in practice and in principle.

First, a few states have not taken a discriminatory position against civil marriages of gay and lesbian
couples. In those states, civilly married gay and lesbian couples should be able to live and travel freely
and without fear that their relationship will be disrespected.
Second, even as to those states with discriminatory laws and/or constitutional amendments, legally
married gay and lesbian couples from those states may well face some discrimination in some quarters,
but their marriages will also be treated with legal respect in other arenas. Marriages are far more likely to
be respected by others than newly minted “civil unions.”

Using the term marriage also prompts a discussion about fairness. Allowing same sex couples to marry
(rather than enter a separate status) will allow gay and lesbian people to talk with their neighbors, their
local elected officials, and the Congress about whether discrimination against their marriages is fair.
Where gay and lesbian people and their children are part of the social fabric, is it right to continue
discriminating against them in civil marriage? The federal government and states that have taken
discriminatory positions against marriages of gay and lesbian couples could rethink those policies and go
back to respecting state laws about marriage, as they have done for hundreds of years. In the end, we
will not be able to have this discussion until gay and lesbian folks have what everyone else has: civil marriage.
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2 Responses to The difference between civil unions and marriage

  1. Barb says:

    Thanks for the info. It presents the arguments well, and without the negative emotions that are so often present. Hopefully in our lifetime, anyone will be able to get "married".

  2. Thanks, Barb. I can't wait for that day to come. It's time that the government stops treating a large part of our population as if they are second class citizens.

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