Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Civil Unions. What They Are; What They Aren't.

On January 1, 2008, New Hampshire became the fourth state in the nation to grant civil unions to same-sex couples. Currently, civil unions are recognized in Vermont, New Jersey, and Connecticut, while both California and Oregon offer Domestic Partnership Laws, which offer substantially similar rights and protections.

What is a Civil Union? Civil union laws attempt to create a legal status parallel to that of marriage. The New Hampshire legislation creating civil unions is entitled, "An Act Permitting Same Gender Couples to Enter Civil Unions and Have the Same Rights, Responsibilities, and Obligations as Married Couples". The idea is to provide separate-but-equal rights, protections, and obligations for both same and opposite-sex couples.

No Fixed Legal Definition. Marriage creates a familial relationship between two persons which is recognized across cultures, religions, and around the world. The institution of marriage is ubiquitous and needs little explanation. In contrast, civil unions exist in only a handful of places around the world, are not imbued with universal meaning, and have no fixed legal definition. In other words, the definition of a civil union is whatever the granting state's legislature decides it is: there is no guarantee that State A will grant the same rights and benefits to a same-sex civil union as State B. And while all states have a framework for marriage creation and dissolution, not all states have a framework in place for civil unions.

Civil Unions Provide Some Tangible Benefits. Civil union laws dramatically underestimate the social and cultural significance of the institution of marriage. Even a civil union law which provides all the economic and legal rights and benefits of a marriage still deprives same-sex couples of the rich social and cultural benefits, as well as dignity and security, attached to the word 'marriage'. For an eloquent discussion on the intangible benefits associated with marriage, read the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's opinion in Goodridge v. Dep't of Public Health.

Civil Unions Provide only State Rights and Benefits. A civil union provides only some of the state rights and benefits granted to married persons, and do not confer over 1,000 rights and benefits conferred by the federal government. And while the 1996 Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) currently denies federal recognition of same-sex marriage, the likely repeal of DOMA will entitle same-sex married couples to the full spectrum of federal rights and privileges. As presently drafted, the civil union laws of Connecticut and Vermont grant only state-level rights, and do not contemplate the provision of any federal rights and privileges.

Civil Unions Invite Unequal Treatment. Same-sex marriages originating in Massachusetts are quickly spreading throughout the country. As same-sex marriages cross state lines, new states are being challenged to apply their existing marital structure to these couples, including laws relating to inheritance, divorce, adoption, spousal and child support, access to health and financial records, etc. Without a historical and legal tradition of recognition, state courts and legislatures may not be as compelled to extend reciprocal rights to civil unions. Same-sex married couples may be in a better position to challenge the federal government's unequal treatment of their marriage compared with opposite-sex marriages. Civil unions, as a separate legal institution, are susceptible to unequal treatment.

A Civil Union is Not Marriage. Although civil unions represent a momentous practical step forward for same-sex couples living in the states that grant them, a civil union is a political compromise. A civil union is not marriage.

(Given the current patchwork of various state and federal laws relative to the recognition of same-sex relationships, couples considering entering into a civil union or a marriage should consult with an attorney first, as a change in status could effect property ownership, inheritance, immigration status, adoption rights, military benefits, etc.)