Marriage vs. Civil Union or Domestic Partnership

Civil union and domestic partnerships are a second-class status, and when people take on all the commitments and responsibilities of marriage they should not be treated like second-class citizens. While these legal mechanisms provide a measure of protections to same-sex couples and their families, they are no substitute for the full measure of respect, clarity, security and responsibilities of marriage itself. They exclude people from marriage and create an unfair system that often does not work in emergency situations when people need it most.

The only way to achieve equality is to provide the freedom to marry for all committed couples.

Despite their inequality, some states are creating these legal mechanisms to recognize gay couples. While this does show progress and provides same-sex couples with important responsibilities and protections previously withheld, we also see the repeal of these laws when the freedom to marry is achieved because they are found unequal to marriage.

In June 2013, the United States Supreme Court struck down a central section of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which excluded same-sex couples from marriage - and from the 1,100 protections and responsibilities that marriage triggers at the federal level. Now more than ever, we see why civil union and domestic partnership are unequal to marriage. The landmark decision extending federal protections to married same-sex couples does not apply to committed gay couples who enter into civil union or domestic partnership, mechanisms that have been created by the state as a specifically separate status from marriage. 


What do these terms mean?

CIVIL UNION: Civil union exists in three states: New Jersey, Illinois, and Hawaii. Civil union was first created in Vermont, in 2000, to provide some legal protections and responsibilities to gay and lesbian couples at the state level, but in 2009 the state legislature ended gay couples exclusion from marriage after realizing civil union created a second class citizenship.

Cobbled together as both the state and the nation were just beginning to engage in a conversation about the inherent unfairness of legal discrimination in marriage, civil unions have since proven to be ineffective, a separate but unequal status (pdf) that often heightens the need for access to both the tangible and intangible protections that only marriage can afford. The protections and responsibilities do not extend beyond the border of the states in which the civil union was entered, offer murky access to separation laws, and no federal protections are included with a civil union.

DOMESTIC PARTNERSHIP: Domestic partnerships are a form of union under which gay (and sometimes non-gay) couples in some states or regions can formalize their partnerships.  Oregon's domestic partnership law went into effect in February 2008. However, as with civil union the status remains a separate and unequal legal compromise which does not apply when a couple travels out of state, and offers no federal protections. Aside from Oregon, a hodge-podge of domestic partnership laws (statewide/district-wide in Nevada) and registries offer a wildly varying selection of protections and responsibilities which can change from zip code to zip code. Many domestic partnership registries offer no rights or protections at all and simply serve as a written acknowledgment of a couple's commitment to each other.


"Marriage Makes a Word of Difference"

Evan Wolfson
June 14, 2007
In response to the question "Why can't you just call it something else?," Wolfson explains how the "clarity, security, and dignity [of the word marriage] is precious and irreplaceable."

The Legal, Medical, Economic & Social Consequences of New Jersey’s Civil Union Law
New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission
December 2008
In a unanimous vote, a blue-ribbon state government commission issues its final report to Governor Corzine and the legislature, recommending they enact a marriage equality law.

Connecticut Supreme Court Ruling on Kerrigan & Mock v. Connecticut Dept. of Public Health

October 10, 2008
"Although marriage and civil unions do embody the same legal rights under our law, they are by no means equal," Justice Palmer wrote in the majority opinion, joined by Justices Flemming L. Norcott Jr., Joette Katz and Lubbie Harper. "The former is an institution of transcendent historical, cultural and social significance, whereas the latter is not."

Marriage, Registration and Dissolution by Same-Sex Couples in the U.S.
Williams Institute
July 2008
Williams Institute finds that same-sex couples prefer marriage over civil unions or domestic partnerships, and want and use new legal statuses.

California Supreme Court Ruling on In re: Marriage Cases
May 15, 2008
Chief Justice George writes, "[R]etaining the designation of marriage exclusively for opposite-sex couples and providing only a separate and distinct designation for same-sex couples may well have the effect of perpetuating a more general premise -- now emphatically rejected by this state -- that gay individuals and same-sex couples are in some respects 'second-class citizens' who may, under the law, be treated differently from, and less favorably than, heterosexual individuals or opposite-sex couples. Under these circumstances, we cannot find that retention of the traditional definition of marriage constitutes a compelling state interest. Accordingly, we conclude that to the extent the current California statutory provisions limit marriage to opposite-sex couples, these statutes are unconstitutional."

Report of the Vermont Commission on Family Recognition and Protection
Office of Legislative Council
April 21, 2008
The report finds civil unions do not provide the fairness and equality they were intended to offer same-sex couples and their families.

First Interim Report of the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission
New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission
February 19, 2008
The report finds New Jersey's civil union law "is not clear to the general public" and "creates a second-class status" for those who have filed for civil unions.

Civil Marriage v. Civil Unions: What’s the difference?
Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD)
GLAD answers the question 'What's the difference?' by breaking down the specific differences between marriage and civil unions.