Is a civil union a marriage? If it is, why are they called by different names? Does it matter what a relationship is called?
These questions form the crux of the debate over gay marriage. Let’s start with the first question and cover the basics.
Is a Civil Union a Marriage?
No, a civil union is not a marriage. In the United States, marriage is a religious and civil (government) institution. A marriage comes with certain legal rights, such as the right to make medical decisions and the right to inherit property when no will is present. Legally married persons also may adopt children in every state and have other family rights.
A civil union carries only the civil part of the marriage, but it is not clear whether a civil union would be as strong legally as a marriage. Many people believe signing a medical consent is always legally binding and cannot be undone. This perception isn’t true in all cases, and being the married partner of someone is the surest guarantee that you will the decision-making force. In theory, civil unions function like marriages in that they afford full legal benefits to both partners.
Why Are They Called by Different Names?
From a moral perspective, many people in the United States assumed one male and one female partner defined a marriage. When that definition came into question, 32 states passed laws to ban same-sex marriage. The federal government in 1996 passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibits insurance and other employment benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees.
This confusion led many activist organizations and state legislators to use the term “civil union,” though the U.S. is not the birthplace of this term. Since the 1980s, European countries, including Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland have used civil union or similar terms to denote legal partnership status for same-sex couples. Many states use other terms as well, including domestic partnership, civil alliance, and life partnerships. In some instances, these terms apply to cohabitating heterosexual couples as well.
Does It Matter What a Relationship is Called?
For many people, it does not. The moderate position on this issue is that civil union is perfectly acceptable because it affords legal rights to same-sex couples. Activists on either end of this position argue differently, however. Opponents of same-sex marriage view civil unions as an end-run around the laws passed in several states and believe the status is a way to grant rights by skirting the laws. Proponents of gay marriage believe only marriage, as an equal institution to opposite-sex couples’ marriage, is appropriate to ensure gay and lesbian couples have protected rights.