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The Difference Between Marriage and Civil Unions

What's the Difference between Civil Unions and and Gay Marriage?

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Updated May 29, 2014
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 and Domestic Partnerships exist in only a handful of places like New Jersey and Oregon.

Vermont was the first state to create civil unions in 2000 to provide legal protections to gays and lesbians in relationships in that state because gay marriage was not an option. The protections did 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 responsibilities 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 Oregon's domestic partnership law comes with many rights and responsibilities. Others 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 and Domestic Partnerships. If someone has a Domestic Partnership, that union is recognized by some states and not others. Some states have even ruled that they do not have to recognize civil unions performed in other states, because their states have no such legal category. As gay marriages become legal in other states, this status may change.

Immigration:

A United States citizen who is married can sponsor his or her non-American opposite-sex spouse for immigration into this country. Those with Civil Unions have no such privilege.

Taxes:

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.

Benefits:

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.

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