Civil Unions < Marriage

Due to the recent passage of Proposition 8, the class (and nation) has had a lot of discussion of the issue of Gay Marriage.  We haven’t really focused on what rights Gay Couples are not permitted to have.  This is a quite brief rundown on why Civil Unions are lacking as an answer to one of the Civil Rights issues in our time.


Civil Unions do not (and are unable to) confer federal rights.


With regard to taxes, couples in a civil union can file a joint tax return, but they can’t do so for federal taxes.  It is oftentimes advantageous for couples to be able to file jointly; gifts to a partner or other transfer of assets can be taxed in a civil union.


When one’s partner dies, it is procedural for the survivor’s social security benefits to increase to a level commensurate with the couple’s earnings, rather than just the survivor’s earnings.  From a personal standpoint, I have seen the positive impact of such a program: my Grandmother has been on survivor’s benefits (as well as SSI) for years.  Those couples in a civil union can’t collect survivor’s benefits.


Health insurance issues are another example of missing rights.  (Deep breath)  Ok, here we go.  This one’s a bit of a doozy, as this is the most complex of the issues surrounding the inadequacy of civil unions.  Here are a couple of concerns regarding civil unions and health insurance:

  • Employers can choose whether or not they would like to provide health insurance benefits to spouses in a civil union if their private health plans are not subject to state law.
  • Even if subject to state law, most states do not compel employers to cover spouses in civil unions.

Additionally, in places like Vermont, children born to couples in a civil union are presumed to be the child of both members in the civil union.  This presumption is not present in other states; the couple would likely have to go through the adoption process.  This seems complex, but let me give an example:

  • Kristin (a woman) has a child while in a civil union with another woman, Jamie.
  • They decide together to name their baby girl Madison.
  • If the couple separates, and Kristin moves to Pennsylvania with Madison, then Jamie will not be presumed as a parent to the child.
  • This means that although the child was born while the parents were in a civil union, Kristin would have the ability to deny Jamie the right to visit, even if Jamie was willing to move to Pennsylvania to remain close to little Madison.

I believe that we all want to find love someday.  If I find that, my friends, family, and society should be happy, regardless of who it is.


Shawn Scanlon



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7 responses to “Civil Unions < Marriage

  1. Diego Del Campo

    I really like this post Shawn, and generally agree with you.
    I’m still somewhat in disbelief that Prop 8 passed, especially in California, where Obama won with a more than comfortable margin–which means that people who voted for Obama, also voted to deny equal rights, I just find this antithetical to Obama’s and the Democratic party’s platform of inclusion.
    But then again, Obama famously called the debate between civil unions and marriage a “semantic” issue, rather than a true from a legal standpoint.
    I just hope that as president, Obama repeals DOMA, which is really at the crux of that scenario you point out. Heterosexual couples take it for granted that their marriage in one state will be recognized in all other states, but gay couples don’t have that same protection under civil unions or even under DOMA.

  2. Tony Robinson

    I share Shawn and Diego’s sentiments here and deeply believe that discrimination against homosexuals (as in DOMA or Prop 8) is as repugnant and indefensible as such actions would be if targeted to different racial or religious groups. I look forward to a day when society can move beyond such primitive holdover sentiments–but I doubt Obama will risk much capital in taking a serious stand on such issues. JFK did not take the lead in moving civil rights forward–he was FORCED into this position by civil rights activists marching, getting themselves arrested, riding the freedom busses, etc. So it will be the moderate Obama. He will only stand up for such issues if forced to and led there by an independent activist movement on the ground. Obama has given no signals that he with be a prophetic leader on such issues–but he is likely to be a willing follower, if the people move.

  3. bbohnert

    I agree with Tony on Obama being a follower if the people will lead – much like JFK did with civil rights. In both cases, the president has some political considerations to deal with but eventually the country tries to do the right thing and will pull the president along when it becomes politically safe to do so. I think the issue is still taboo to address and Obama does not want to touch this with a ten foot pole, but we can hope that the courts in California will once again rule this law what it is – legalized discrimination.

  4. Diego Del Campo

    A ten-foot pole, seriously? I don’t think the situation’s that bad. I don’t think the California supreme court should overturn the will of the people, who amended the state’s constitution–the U.S. supreme is the one that needs to rule it unconstitutional.
    I have to disagree with Tony here, while there may be similarities between the civil rights of movement of the 60s and the movement of today, they are not one in the same, and Obama is not JFK.
    I don’t think progressives ought to be making excuses for the progressive, “change we need” president, he needs to move in a concerted effort, early in his term. It shouldn’t be the first thing he does–Bill Clinton’s mistake was making Don’t Ask Don’t Tell the first issue of his administration, which was obviously a mistake. Still, he should stand up for equal rights, at least by repealing DOMA.

  5. bbohnert

    well maybe an 8 footer…Biden danced around the subject and refused to take a stand at the debate. This is politically risky because for some reason American’s can’t wrap their puritan minds around the fact that dudes like to be with other – and it hurts no one. Until this happens, this issue will still be ours to wrestle with.

  6. Shawn_Scanlon

    I’ve never believed that Obama was all that “progressive.” I see Obama as a pragmatist.

    Progressives need to make it clear to Obama that not leading on the issue will lose him more votes than it will gain him, simple as that.

    Agreed that Clinton’s 1st thing shouldn’t have been the regressive “don’t tell” policy, just as repealing DOMA shouldn’t be a first-year priority for Obama. But it’ll be telling if we see no progress on the issue in his first term.

  7. Jean Gadberry

    How ironic is it that people that don’t want to be married any longer have to be because it is so costly to divorce (, but people who actually want to be married can’t. Terrible.

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