Civil Unions vs. Marriage
From a What's That About question and answer in the
Valley Gay Press -- Originally written in May 2007, but updated 1/9/09
By Liz Bradbury

The Question:

Dear Liz,

My name is Kathy Jameson. I have met you on several occasions. I need some information from you regarding marriage rights vs. civil union rights. I am a long standing member of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) which is the world's largest movie website. They have hundreds of different message boards, one which is called the Soapbox. The Soapbox is a board where anything is discussed, not just movies.

As with anyplace, there are a fair number of rather vocal homophobes and anti-gay people, as well as many out gay people. The subject of marriage vs. civil unions comes up frequently. Recently, there have been several gay people who have expressed the belief that civil unions are just as good as
marriages for gay people because they offer the same benefits. I disagree with this, and in the interests of equality, I feel that marriage is the only way to go.

I pointed out last week why I felt that marriage is better and I stated that there are many rights that married people have that civil unions CANNOT provide. I was told that I should enumerate these rights or not express my opinion. Since I do know that these rights exist, and since I really can't list all of the ones that civil unions do not afford, I am coming to you to ask if you can assist me by providing a list of rights that marriage provides as opposed to the rights that civil unions do not provide. It would be of great general interest at that board to actually have these listed for them to see, and hopefully it will help sway some people who do support civil unions but not marriage.

Also, I am aware of differences in rights concerning domestic partnership. Domestic partnership is not what I am interested in, I feel it is a separate issue, but if there is also a list of those rights that can be compared to both marriage rights and civil union rights, then it would probably help to include them also.

The IMDb has several million members, and the Soapbox itself has thousands and thousands on a daily basis, so anything I post will receive a wide audience which is, for the most part, comprised of thinking and responsive individuals.

Would it be possible for you to help provide a list of rights regarding these issues, in particular the rights that domestic unions vs. marriage do NOT provide. I feel it is important that people know these differences and are aware that civil unions are not representative of equality in partnerships that full marriage is.

In particular I want to impress on the gay people who think that civil unions are the same that they are mistaken. It will also help any straight people who are undecided on the issue. The message of equality must continue to be expressed, and I want to do something to help continue to get this message out.

Thank you very much for any information that you can give me.


Kathy Jameson

The answer:

Dear Kathy,

You are right, they are wrong...

The two big differences between civil union and marriage are that: #1 Civil union is not portable between states that do not have civil union...get a Civil Union in New Jersey and it means nothing in PA... And #2 Civil Union only grants the state rights in which it is issued, not Federal Marriage rights...and there are 1138 US federal marriage rights!!!

The Categories of US Federal Marriage Rights include:
Access to Military Spouse Support
Assumption of Spouse's Pension
Bereavement Leave
Insurance Breaks
Medical Decisions on Behalf of Partner
Sick Leave to Care for Partner
Social Security Survivor Benefits
IRS Tax Breaks
Veteran's Discounts
Visitation of Partner in Hospital or Prison
The Right To Not Have To Testify Against One's Spouse

Each of these topics have dozens, if not hundreds of rights attached to them. Everything from major tax considerations to the transference of fishing licenses at federal parks.

Let's take for example:

Social Security: Under federal law a married survivor gets Social Security benefits if their spouse dies. Civil Union grants zero Social Security benefits to the partner.

Immigration: If you can get legally married to a person from another country they can easily become a citizen of the United States. Civil union grants zero immigration rights because immigration is solely a federal issue. If a US male citizen from Vermont falls in love with a Canadian man they can get a civil union in Vermont, but that won't get citizenship for the Canadian partner. He can't stay in this country because they only have a civil union. But, on the flip side, the man from Vermont can marry the Canadian in Canada and become a Canadian citizen and they can live together in Canada. Because same-sex marriage is legal in Canada.

Now consider Military Spouse support. Say a same-sex couple from New Jersey gets a civil union***. One is in the Military and she is deployed to Iraq. They aren't married, so there is no federal recognition of their relationship. No access to spousal support groups, no medical benefits for the civil union partner, no PX benefits, no family housing when the solider comes home, and no lifetime pension if the solider is killed. Only legal marriage grants those benefits. And by the way, under Don't Ask Don't tell if that soldier even mentions to a military metal health counselor or their CO or a military chaplain that she is concerned about her civil unioned partner back home, she will get an automatic discharge. Imagine the pressure to never be able to mention one's partner, when other soldiers are getting significant support for their families back home.
If same-sex marriage was legal in the US it would put an end to Don't Ask Don't Tell...because the relationship of the same-sex spouse would be "telling."

***Don't Ask Don't Tell - However...It's important to note that a person who has a Civil Union may actually never enter the military because under Don't Ask Don't Tell having a Civil Union is automatric grounds for dismissal. It is "telling." A person already in the Military who enters into a Civil Union has broken army policy and will be subject to dischage - perhaps dishonorable discharge.

Benefits: It's great that people who work in states that have civil union can now be assured that they get health benefits when those benefits are extended to the spouses of employees. But there's still an unequal catch. While they get the benefits, the federal government taxes the employees for those benefits as though the value of those benefits was part of the employee's salary. That can easily cost $1000 dollars a year. Legally married couples do not pay federal tax on spouse health benefits.

By the way, right now in New Jersey, where civil unions have just become legal, people who are working in New Jersey businesses that have anything to do with federal government contracts are finding that some businesses (UPS is one) are claiming they do not have to follow the state law and give health benefits to the partners of civil unioned workers because they say they only have to follow federal law. Whether they will ultimately get away with it is up to the courts...but it wouldn't be up to the courts if the people were legally married.

The thing is that in the United States,
Civil Union is a legal term that means one thing and Civil Marriage is a legal term that means something different. Marriage legally means all the state and federal rights...and Civil Union means the state rights only. This is not going to change. Marriage means equality, civil union means some of the rights. Marriage is one kind of legal contract in the US and Civil Union is another kind of contract. They are not the same. If they were the same, they wouldn't have different names.

Remember that this really has
nothing to do with religious marriage because religious marriage simply depends on a given church. There are some churches that recognize religious marriage between two people of the same-sex and some that don't. Ones that do include, Metropolitan Community Church, United Church of Christ, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, Unitarian Universalist, Quaker, and other churches that are independent, but these marriages are not legally recognized unless they are in Massachusetts. There are some churches that do not recognize marriages between people of different faiths, and some that do not recognize ones when one of the people has been divorced. There is no law that says churches have to recognize any marriage and there is no law that says churches can't recognize that two people of the same-sex are married in the eyes of God.

Gay couples already have the right to religious marriage. My partner and I were married in a Christian church. For the people of that church we are religiously married in the eyes of God. In fact, laws banning marriage to same-sex couples are actually interferring with people's right to religion. Since some religions fully recongize same-sex marriage, barring same-sex marriage is a ban on religious freedom. Or at least it can be seen that way. In other words, one of the rights granted to opposite sex couples under US law, is the right to have their religious marriage legally recognized. We do not have that right.

Finally when you are talking about marriage vs. civil union there is a whole history and social attitude about marriage compared to civil union or holy union or whatever. The average person in any state sees civil union as less than marriage...if people still insist that civil union is the same as marriage tell them to ask any opposite sex married couple in New Jersey if they would be willing to give up their marriage and just take the rights and label of civil union instead. Most wouldn't and with good reason...because civil union is not the same as civil marriage. It isn't even separate but equal.

Let's face it, if you want to give a minority group equal rights ... then give them the rights. Just do it. Give them all the rights, not a separate water fountain and a separate classroom and a separate set of laws with a different name.

The way to keep a minority in an inferior role is to deny them an equal identity. A huge segment of US law is set up in such a way to "protect" the family.

For example, if a married person dies in PA, their surviving spouse inherits the family home, and though there is a 7% tax, that tax is deferred until the sale of the home or the death of the surviving partner and then their own estate pays the 7% tax. This is protects the family of the spouse. They can keep their family home without fear.

However, now take me and my partner of 21 years. We own our home together in PA and we have a JTROS deed meaning that we are joint tenants with right or survivorship, and we have all the wills and powers of attorney...but when one of us dies, the other has to pay 15% tax on our home on the day of death. Because the state of PA sees us as strangers. That is a huge financial burden and no will or deed can change that.

To deny us the full terms of a legal marriage contract means that our family is not protected in the way other US families are protected. There is nothing we can do about it until laws are changed. And yet we stay together because we love each other and are committed to each other without any of the social and institutional help the US government provides other families.

We are treated in an inferior way to keep us inferior. And many times we begin to believe that a lower level or rights is all we deserve. Gay people have to keep reminding themselves that equality means

But gay people have to remind themselves everyday that equality means believing you deserve equal rights. We deserve legal marriage protections and equal legal rights just like any other family and nothing less.

And re your question about Domestic Partner Benefits. There is no definitive list when it comes to DP benefits -- generally in states like Washington State, they are very limited: In New Jersey, before they had civil unions, they gave 4 domestic partner rights. They had to do with inheritance, and hospital visitation. Of course now, NJ gives all the NJ state rights under civil union.

In California, where they have a domestic partner law, the law gives most of the state rights of civil union, but it is not recognized in other states where they have civil unions.

Meanwhile, so far, a civil union in one US State is recognized in all the states that give civil unions. There are three states that give civil union -- VT, NH and NJ. But remember in every case of DP Benefits and Civil Union -- they never grants federal rights.

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Best wishes,

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