Civil Unions Spread, But Gays Want to Wed

 

(Updated 11:15 a.m. EDT, May 31, 2007)

When New Hampshire state Rep. Jim Splaine (D) held hearings on his same-sex civil union bill, none of the state's gay rights activists showed up. A week later they packed a hearing room to support a competing bill allowing gay marriage.

Despite the cold shoulder, New Hampshire lawmakers in April approved a historic civil union bill offering same-sex couples the same state-level rights and responsibilities as under traditional marriage laws. On Thursday (May 31), Gov. John Lynch (D) signed the measure, making New Hampshire the fourth state to offer civil unions.

The Granite State's experience is not surprising. Most gay rights activists take a hard line in their quest for so-called marriage equality, while lawmakers in about a dozen states are taking a more pragmatic approach - opting for the legal protections and financial benefits of matrimony without the title, according to Jay Barth, professor of politics at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark.

Vermont, Connecticut and New Jersey also offer civil unions, a legal relationship that didn't exist before 2000.

Taking a slightly different path, Oregon and Washington state enacted domestic partnership laws this year, giving committed gay couples many of the legal benefits heterosexual married couples enjoy. California, Maine and Hawaii have similar laws.

"I'm not bothered by the semantics of marriage versus civil unions," Splaine told Stateline.org . "Was a marriage bill feasible this year? No. Did we pass essentially the same thing? Yes," said Splaine, who is gay.

Although gay rights activists say they are grateful for the legal protections that come with civil unions - including hospital visitation and burial rights, inheritance without a will and access to a partner's health-insurance benefits - they stridently object to the notion that civil unions are the same as marriage.

In most states, though, "the sentiment isn't there for same-sex marriage, but there is an understanding of the fairness of providing legal protections for people in committed relationships," said Illinois state Rep. Gregory Harris (D), who is gay. "I know we can't have marriage now in Illinois. Instead, we need to do what we can politically," said Harris, who sponsored a civil union bill this year that failed to advance through the Legislature.

Even with the marriage title - available only in Massachusetts - same-sex couples do not have the same rights as different-sex couples because the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act bars them from receiving some 1,100 federal rights, including married-couple tax breaks and transfer of Social Security benefits.

"Civil unions are nothing like marriage," New Jersey gay rights activist Steven Goldstein said. "The cockamamie contraption simply doesn't work. If civil unions were a person, they would be arrested for fraud," said Goldstein, director of Garden State Equality , a gay-rights advocacy group.

According to Goldstein, one in eight couples with a civil union license has been denied benefits by employers, insurers and financial institutions.

Since February 2007 when New Jersey began issuing civil union licenses, about 850 couples have entered unions - a much lower number than originally projected. Of that number, more than 100 have sought legal help from Goldstein's organization because their licenses were not accepted as equal to marriage. "We have lawyers calling us asking 'What does this civil union license mean?'" Goldstein said.

Until same-sex couples can marry and get the same benefits as heterosexual couples in all 50 states, gay rights activists say they will push for change in state capitals. "Everyone wants to continue to pursue marriage equality. Civil unions are separate and unequal," said New Hampshire state Rep. Mo Baxley (D), sponsor of a gay marriage bill and head of the New Hampshire Freedom to Marry Coalition.

But in the three years since Massachusetts became the first state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, most states have gone in the opposite direction. Forty-two have statutes prohibiting same-sex marriage, and 27 have voter-approved amendments to their state constitutions blocking gay nuptials.

Even in Massachusetts, lawmakers are considering a 2008 voter initiative that would amend the state constitution to bar same-sex marriage, reversing the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's landmark 2004 ruling allowing gay marriage.

The civil union label was invented by Vermont policymakers in 2000 after the state's highest court ruled gay couples are entitled to the " common benefits and protections that flow from marriage under Vermont law." In 2005 , Connecticut became the first state to enact a civil union law without a court order. New Jersey began issuing civil union licenses this year.

California adopted a similar alternative under a different name: domestic partnerships. First enacted in 1999, the law was expanded in 2005 to include all state marriage rights, making it essentially the same as a civil union law. Hawaii (1997) and Maine (2004) have domestic partnership laws that convey some, but not all, state matrimonial rights.

In other state efforts to expand gay couples' access to marriage, Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch issued an opinion in February recognizing same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts. New York's Democratic governor, Eliot Spitzer, also moved the debate forward, introducing a bill in April that would permit same-sex marriage. Although Spitzer acknowledged state lawmakers were not likely to approve such a measure this year, he is the first governor to sponsor gay marriage legislation.

The number of gay marriages and civil unions in the United States is relatively small - fewer than 10,000 marriages in Massachusetts, fewer than 9,000 civil unions in Vermont and about 1,400 in Connecticut. But the issue continues to inflame passions in state capitols and Congress, as gay rights advocates square off against religious and other socially conservative groups committed to protecting traditional marriage.

National polls indicate a majority of Americans oppose same-sex marriage, though opposition is slowly shrinking, according to a 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press . But marriage alternatives - civil unions and other partnerships - are favored by a slim majority, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

"As Americans become more familiar with gay couples and their families, they are more inclined to offer protections, such as civil unions," said Marty Rouse of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights advocacy group.

 
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