Civil union is a label that gets thrown around quite a bit. But what exactly do those words mean? Before same-sex marriage was declared legal in 2015, the concept of a civil union was popular. For politicians, it seemed like an interchangeable idea that required no legal action—but if a civil union was the same as marriage, why would the LGBT community have fought so hard for equality?
What Is a Civil Union?
A civil union is a legally recognized, non-marriage union status created as a parallel but separate relationship to marriage itself.
"In essence, marriage in the United States is a civil union; but a civil union, as it has come to be called, is not marriage," explains legal expert Evan Wolfson. "Rather, it is a legal mechanism created in some places to give some of the protections but also withhold something precious (the freedom to marry) from gay people."
Meet the Expert
Evan Wolfson is a civil rights attorney and advocate for gay rights. He is the founder of the Freedom to Marry campaign for marriage equality.
Read on for a breakdown of the key differences between a civil union and a marriage.
Civil Union vs. 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. In the United States, couples are issued a paper marriage license, which entitles both partners to share finances, benefits, and insurance, as well as other kinds of allowances (such as hospital visitation rights).
But the exclusionary aspects of a civil union start first and foremost with the status itself. "Once you say some people can marry, but others can only enter into civil union, you are already setting them apart (and here deliberately so)," explains Wolfson. "Marriage is a rich bundle of meanings, and brings with it tangible and intangible protections, responsibilities, dignity, and security. Civil union excludes committed couples from those meanings, setting them apart, even if it provides certain or even many specific legal and economic rights. Civil union lacks the security, clarity, and dignity of inclusion in marriage."
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 because same-sex marriage was not an option. "Civil union was essentially created as a way of both giving and withholding important incidents of marriage—recognizing same-sex couples and their needs while refusing to end their exclusion from marriage itself," says Wolfson. "A number of jurisdictions experimented with this approach, as well as countries such as Denmark and France, but most concluded that civil union and alternate statuses failed to provide either the tangible or intangible meaning of marriage, and pushed past such separate approaches to the freedom to marry for all." But the popularity of the status seems to be dwindling. "As barriers to same-sex couples marrying have come down, civil union has waned as an alternative," adds Wolfson.
State and Federal Recognition
Civil unions offer some of the same rights and responsibilities as marriage, but only on a state level; this means a civil union does not offer any federal protections at all. Some states and municipalities have domestic partnership registries, but no domestic partnership law is the same. Some, like Oregon's domestic partnership law, come with many rights and responsibilities. Others offer very few benefits to the couple. "Civil union, domestic partnership, and such are not a system," notes Wolfson. "They are programs or mechanisms individually created by different entities and typically understood and honored only by that particular entity."
This is vastly different from state and federal recognition of a marital union. 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.
A United States citizen who is married can sponsor his or her non-American spouse for immigration into this country. Those with civil unions have no such privilege.
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.
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 an 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.
Thankfully, any queer couples looking to wed since the Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell v. Hodges have been able to do so fairly easily. A marriage is not for everyone, though, and your relationship may need a different arrangement.