Marriage, Civil Unions and Domestic Partnerships: A Comparison
What's the difference between marriages, civil unions and domestic partnerships? Do they offer the same rights and protections? Read on to find out.
Domestic partnerships are the lowest level of relationship recognition, and the rights and responsibilities they convey vary drastically from state to state, if a state provides them at all. The protections and benefits of domestic partnerships are typically minimal, and are not recognized if the couple travels outside their home state.
In 1999 California Governor Grey Davis signed a domestic partner bill, making California the first state to legally recognize same-sex relationships (the District of Columbia passed a domestic partner bill in 1992, but it was blocked from taking effect until 2002). California's landmark court decision on marriage in May 2008 made California the 2nd state (following Massachusetts) to allow marriage for same-sex couples. Unfortunately, in November 2008 voters passed Proposition 8, amending California's Constitution to ban marriage for same-sex couples, thus leaving domestic partner protections as the only recognition once again.
Today, a handful of states - including Maine - recognize domestic partnerships in some form. In some states, this is largely a symbolic recognition. In other states, registering as domestic partners provides a limited set of protections and responsibilities. Some employers, but not all, offer domestic partner health care benefits. Many domestic partners must take exhaustive (and expensive) legal steps to protect themselves and their families. Even then, they can still face serious financial, legal and social challenges, especially as they age, retire, purchase property, raise children and seek medical treatment.
See also: Domestic Partnerships in Maine
At one time, four states offered civil unions: Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey and New Hampshire. Today, only New Jersey continues to recognize civil unions because the other three states now allow marriage for same-sex couples.
Civil unions may not be recognized outside the state in which they are performed - which means that if a couple faces a medical emergency while traveling, one partner may not be permitted to make decisions for the other. Employers may or may not offer health insurance for parties in a civil union.
While the protections and benefits of a civil union are greater than those of a domestic partnership, they still fall short of providing the hundreds of protections automatically conveyed by marriage. Like those in domestic partnerships, civil union couples must take additional legal steps to provide greater protections for themselves and their children, though no amount of supplementary paperwork can provide all the benefits of marriage.
For many families, the greatest harm of civil unions is the "separate and unequal" status they convey. The Supreme Court of Connecticut decided in 2008 that it is unconstitutional to force same-sex couples into "separate and unequal" status by offering civil unions but blocking them from civil marriage.
See also: "Separate and Not Equal" (New York Times, Dec. 20, 2008)
Five states currently recognize marriage for same-sex couples: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa.
Civil marriage automatically confers hundreds of rights and responsibilities on couples, and provides critical protections for their families. While gay and lesbian families can protect themselves in limited ways by constructing wills, health care proxies and co-parent adoptions, alone or in addition to domestic partnerships or civil unions, this does not come close to emulating the automatic protections and peace of mind that only marriage can give. People simply cannot contract their way into changing hundreds of laws that affect survivorship rights, worker’s compensation dependency protection or the tax system.
Beyond specific legal protections, marriage confers the intangible benefit of recognition as a family. The word itself is an important protection. Marriage is arguably this nation’s most important civic institution; excluding same-sex couples from marriage marks them and their children as unworthy— and that can’t be remedied with piecemeal legal arrangements.
Religious institutions are not required to perform marriages, though a growing number of faith communities welcome same-sex couples, and there are clergy members who are happy to perform same-sex weddings.
For a comprehensive library of information and resources on marriage, visit Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) marriage page.