Marriage versus civil union: What are the differences?

Illinois may soon join the number of states that offer civil unions to gay couples. (Image by Flickr user Michael_Lehet)

A bill allowing civil unions in Illinois may be near passage, according to an August 23rd press release. If passed, the state would join New Jersey in allowing civil unions. In Iowa, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia, previous civil union laws have been expanded to making gay marriage legal. But what do these distinctions mean, and what is on the horizon as debate over marriage rights continues in the USA?

Senate Bill 1716, the bill that would allow civil unions in Illinois, would grant partners in civil unions the same rights that spouses receive under state law, similar to laws governing these partnerships in other states. Civil unions primarily differ from marriage in that they only cover benefits and rights granted to spouses by the state, not at the federal level. Domestic partnerships, which allow only limited state rights to couples are available in Oregon, Washington, Maine, Hawaii, Nevada, Wisconsin, California and the District of Columbia.

Advocates for gay marriage rights call for equal protections under federal law. (Image by Flickr user DanTheWebmaster)

Federal marriage benefits cannot be granted to same-sex partnerships since the Defense of Marriage Act passed in 1996. Federal laws cover many basic protections and benefits granted to married couples. According to information from the National Organization for Women, couples in civil unions that receive only state benefits face some of these key challenges:

  • Portability: Since civil unions are granted at the state level, and not permitted by all states, couples may not be able to retain their benefits when they cross state lines. This can also create problems when couples in civil unions want to dissolve the union while residing in a state that does not acknowledge them to begin with.
  • Lack of key federal benefits: NOW cites a 1997 General Accounting Office report that lists 1,049 federal benefits to married couples, none of which are available to couples in civil unions. These include Social Security benefits, Family and Medical Leave protection, Worker’s Compensation, basic federal tax exemptions, and next-of-kin status regarding medical decisions and hospitalization.
  • Taxes: Civil unions are not recognized by the federal government, and so those in civil unions will have to file federal taxes as if they are single individuals, even if the state allows them to file similarly to married couples. There are comparable challenges involved with applying for public benefits such as pension protection, insurance, and Medicaid.
  • Forms: Many documents that request marital status do not include an option for civil unions, forcing those in civil unions to misrepresent themselves. In the case of some official documents, this could expose someone in this situation to fraud charges.

Recent polls show public opinion on gay marriage is shifting. (Image by Flickr user nerdrcoregirl)

While these differences distinguish civil unions from federally recognized marriage, gay marriages permitted by state laws also allow only state benefits, due to the Defense of Marriage Act. The cultural significance of marriage means that the addition of gay marriage laws in states that previously allowed civil unions is still regarded as an important advance by advocates for gay marriage rights. Additionally, a CNN poll released this month finds that for the first time, there is a majority support of gay marriage in the USA. The New York Times, reporting on the poll, states that changing demographics are likely to continue to drive this trend across the states:

“Nationally, a majority of people under age 30 support same-sex marriage. And this is not because of overwhelming majorities found in more liberal states that skew the national picture: our research shows that a majority of young people in almost every state support it. As new voters come of age, and as their older counterparts exit the voting pool, it’s likely that support will increase, pushing more states over the halfway mark.”

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