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Jul 23 2007

One In Seven: Why Civil Unions Aren’t Enough

AisleThere are plenty of reasons why civil unions really aren’t equal to marriage — even if the rights and responsibilities spelled out in a state’s civil union law are identical to marriage in every way.

There are legal reasons why they’re not equal — marriage is recognized in every state and indeed every country, while civil unions aren’t; so the rights and responsibilities don’t necessarily travel with you when you leave the state that granted them. There are emotional reasons — marriage is an institution/ ritual/ relationship that has existed for thousands of years, one that has tremendous resonance in our culture in a way that civil unions simply don’t. And there are moral reasons — as history has born out, separate but equal is pretty much by definition not equal.

But if none of those convince you, here’s a really good practical one.

JusticeAs of right now, five months after New Jersey’s Civil Union Law took effect, at least 1 out of every 7 civil-union couples in New Jersey are not getting their civil unions recognized by their employers.

1 out of 7. 14 percent.

If 14 percent of married couples in New Jersey were being denied full, legally-guaranteed marriage benefits by their employers, there’d be outraged stories on every news source in the region, and quite possibly rioting in the streets.

Gsehead2And actually, it’s probably more than 1 out of 7. The 1 out of 7 figure comes from 191 complaints reported to Garden State Equality (out of 1,359 civil-union couples) — and chances are excellent that not everyone who’s having problems is reporting it. And before you ask — no it’s not just one big bad company that’s skewing the results. According to Garden State Equality, the 191 cases involve close to 191 companies.

So civil unions aren’t just legally unequal to marriage; they’re not just emotionally unequal; they’re not even just morally unequal. They’re unequal in the most literal, practical sense of the word. Even in the state where the civil union is the law, people in civil unions are not being treated the same by their employers as people who are married.

HendricksleboeufI get that civil unions are a big step forward. There are times when I’m astonished by the fact that “well, same-sex marriage is out, but civil unions would be okay” has become the moderate position on the issue, maybe even the moderate- to- conservative position. I get that they’re better than nothing — heck, 6 out of 7 civil-union couples in New Jersey are getting their benefits, and that’s not trivial. And I get that, the Supreme Court being what it is right now, it may not be the best strategy to put same-sex marriage to a test on the national level until we get some new faces on the bench.

VowsI’m just saying: It’s not the same. It’s not enough. And I am disinclined to pretend that it is. This fight will not be over in this country until same-sex marriage is legal and fully- recognized in all 50 states. You can put nice cushions in the back of the bus — but it’s still the back of the bus.

(Thanks to Good As You for putting the press release on their site.)

11 comments

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  1. 1
    Robert

    Unlike US Civil Unions, in Europe for example such unions are recognized at the national (federal) level. Case in point, the UK’s Civil Partnerships do in fact confer all of the rights and privileges of hetero marriage without the name, but you’re right, once you leave for another country, they are null and void except if the country one is emigrating to has an reciprocal law in place.
    Robert, NYC.

  2. 2
    Daffyd

    AMEN! Thank God there are enlightened places like Canada that offer real MARRIAGE – not second class status like Civil Unions.

  3. 3
    The Ridger

    In my opinion, civil union should be the default state, carrying with it ALL the CIVIL rights the state offers. Marriage should have NO CIVIL RIGHTS attached to it. Marriage is a “sacred rite” not a “civil right” – let the churches have it and decide who gets it, but it shouldn’t have anything to do with the state.

  4. 4
    Greta Christina

    That’s an interesting idea, Ridger. But I can see a couple of problems with it. One is simply practical — it’s never going to happen. Marriage has been a secular institution/ legal contract for a very long time: it’s recognized not just in this country but around the world, and I think that’s unlikely to change.
    But maybe more importantly: According to your plan, atheists and agnostics couldn’t marry. We could have the legal rights and responsibilities (locally, anyway)… but the emotional and cultural and historical force of marriage would be unavailable to us. And in places around the world where marriage is recognized but civil unions aren’t, we wouldn’t even have the legal rights.

  5. 5
    Anonymous

    I have to agree with the Ridger. Whenever we hear faith-based arguments against same-sex marriage, they follow the same basic reasoning of “marriage is a sacred ritual sanctioned by God…blah, blah, blah…joining a man and woman in holy wedlock…blah, blah, blah” and is usually followed by a quote from Leviticus 18.
    If that is the case, and they can’t handle their ancient ritual steeped in religious origin muddied by the inclusion of same sex partners making the same commitment and deserving of the same legal status, so be it.
    Every couple, gay or straight, should be able to enter a “civil union” sanctioned by the state and recognized at the federal level. The same rights we currently grant married couples should apply to all civil unions, and there should be no legal difference between a civil union of two men, two women or a man and a woman.
    “Marriage” can continue to be a religious ceremony “sanctioned in the eyes of God,” recognized by the church (or other religious institution) and officiated by some sort of spiritual leader. Just as all couples must be licensed by the state to receive legal recognition now, they would still have to obtain a license to have state recognition.
    Of course there will still be marriages between same sex couples performed by certain religious institutions; and these inclusive churches will continue to consider all marriages they perform to have God’s approval. If other churches frown on this practice- well, tough titties. They don’t have the authority to force their religious ideals on other sects or congregations. That’s what freedom of religion is all about, and there isn’t a damn thing they can do about it.
    Separation of church and state calls for such a distinction. No one should have to approve of gay marriage personally, but their religious beliefs shouldn’t have anything to do with the legal recognition of anyone else’s civil union. Personally, I’d rather forego inclusion in the practice of marriage, having only the option of a secular “union” than have my commitment to my partner lumped together with the rituals of any religious wackos. If marriage is a promise made before God, then I cannot marry.
    That being said, I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment that “civil unions” as a state sanctioned alternative to marriage, offered as a conciliatory gesture to same sex couples, should not be an acceptable alternative. Religious law should have no bearing on civil law, and there is no secular justification for denying same-sex couples the same legal recognition offered to heterosexual couples. The laws forbidding interracial marriage were based on ideas put forth by scripture, and we have come to recognize that such laws had no place in civil society. Biblical marriage typically involved girls as young as 13, yet somehow we have let that antiquated practice go, along with stoning adulterers to death and requiring that rapists marry their victims.
    Civil unions should have the same responsibilities and privileges currently given to legal marriage; nothing more, nothing less. The rest of the superstitious nonsense clung to since ancient times, should have no bearing outside their faith. They can be preached to every member of the congregation, along with the warning that those who don’t share their views will burn in hell. And I will continue to think its unfortunate that God doesn’t exist because these self-righteous, prejudiced pricks will never know that they were wrong. Even if it meant eternal damnation for my soul, it would be worth it just to watch them burn along with me.

  6. 6
    Rev. Cawley

    I also agree with Ridger and the person who posted the last message above.
    I am a United Methodist pastor, and so I officiate wedding ceremonies in the name of Jesus Christ and with all of the Christian symbolism of Jesus the Groom united to the Bride, which is the Church.
    One couple came to me wanting to get married, but neither was Christian. The only reason they didn’t get a Justice of the Peace is because the bride wanted the ambience of her grandmother’s backyard, with the release of butterflies. They couldn’t get a Justice of the Peace to come out to Gramma’s butterfly house.
    The last wedding I did was for an athiest/Buddhist couple. I was the athiest groom’s friend…and he asked me if I would do it in their home. I agreed and I enjoyed the experiences, but in both cases they would have been better off to have been able to enter into a civil union with all of the civil rights but without the religious commitment of marriage. Marriage can continue to be a religious
    ceremony sanctioned in the eyes of God and recognized by the religious institution and officiated by the spiritual leader. Amen?

  7. 7
    Greta Christina

    I can see why this idea of “civil unions for the legal contract, marriage for the religious union” is intriguing to people. But I really don’t think it’s workable. And I also really don’t think it’s right.
    It’s not workable because you’d be asking millions upon millions of married couples to dissolve their marriages — both the legal contract and the emotional bond — and replace it with a civil union, a relationship with much less emotional and historical resonance (not to mention less legal recognition around the world).
    And it’s not right because, among other things, it denies marriage to atheists, agnostics, and others who choose, for whatever reason, to not have a religious ceremony (such as many interfaith couples). Again, marriage is more than just the legal contract: as I said in the post, marriage is an institution/ ritual/ relationship that has existed for thousands of years, one that has tremendous resonance in our culture in a way that civil unions simply don’t. It’s not right to deny that, either to same-sex couples or to non-believers.
    And frankly, you’d be radically re-defining the definition of marriage, It simply is not the case that marriage is primarily a religious ceremony. Even in its earliest days when religion was much more omnipresent in the culture, marriage was always a combination of a religious and a legal bond, and in modern times the legal aspect has predominated.
    Separate but equal is not equal. It never has been, and it never will be.

  8. 8
    John McPherson

    What these arguements fail to recognize is that even civil unions are not supported by the majority of the US population. This is a nice little circle jerk here on the net, but it’s not reflective of the opionions of the majority of the population. In hispanic culture, where traditions run deep, this is a very unpopular position. It’s going to be a long time before even civil unions make all fifty states. It sounds to me like most of the people posting here do not respect their fellow citizens nor their moral positions. You don’t have to agree with them. But if you want respect, you have to give. Their is a condescending attitude that is palpable here, and very unhealthy.
    I have lived all over the world, and in most places homosexuality is extremely frowned upon. In the Middle East, it can quickly lead to death. Even if the US did grant same sex marriage, those marriages would not be viewed as legitimate by the vast majority of countries on this planet. The US is VERY progressive in its treatment of homosexuals. Again, ask for too much, too quick, and you often end up with nothing. Look at the backlash in California.

  9. 9
    Greta Christina

    John: Believe me, I understand that the American people are not entirely comfortable with homosexuality. So what? How does that make banning same-sex marriage right or just?
    The way attitudes get changed is to make people think about their attitudes. And the way social change happens is to demand it. Attitudes towards homosexuality have already changed radically in just the last 30 years, and in the last 20, and in the last 10 — and young people’s attitudes are far more progressive than older people’s. That change happened, and is continuing to happen, because the LGBT movement has been visible and vocal and active, and has been continually pushing for rights and recognition and acceptance.
    And while I do give people who disagree with me basic respect as people, I damn well do not have to respect their opinions when their opinion is that I, legally, ought to be a second-class citizen.

  10. 10
    John McPherson

    Greta
    I don’t disagree with your basic position, but again, I think that by pressing to hard you achieve the inverse of what you are trying to achieve. The “anti” crowd digs in its heals.
    The fundamental problem that homosexuals have is an assimilation problem. They are pursuing a lifestyle that, in some aspects of their existence, fails to assimilate. It is an axiom in human history that groups which fail to assimilate are subject to oppression and marginalization. Whether this is right or wrong is somewhat irrelevent. It is a natural phenomenon and like lions eating baby gazelles, it’s going to occur even if we don’t like it. Never forget humans are pack animals. They function in packs, and the group position is a very powerful thing indeed.
    Now the pack can, and does, change it’s position on what constitutes assimilation. But if you push for too much, too fast, you can, and often do, get a violent backlash. Eisenhower found discrimination against blacks a loathesome thing. But he also recognized that changing those perceptions was going to be a difficult process and that clubbing people over the head to make it happen was going to lead to violence. He wanted a gradual approach. Ultimately, for all of the presidents, their positions were overtaken by events. The patience of the black community had reached its limits, and they were willing to die to achieve social change. And die many of those leaders did.
    The level of antipathy towards the gay community isn’t nearly that which was directed against the black community, but at one point it was severe and now it probably exceeds that of the black community. It is behavior which, as it’s root, makes people uncomfortable. I was a career Army Officer. My arguement has always been that homosexuals should be allowed to serve. But my opinion is very much a minority opinion. I remmember vividly a conversation with my last Brigade commander on this subject and I told him that the day would come when Gays were fully integrated in the armed forces, and that Army housing would have gay couples residing in it. He told me he would resign if that day came. And I believe him. His Christian based values were not compatable with that notion. He cringed at the idea that we could have a formal Army function and two gay officers would be sitting in dress blues holding hands. Even for me, that imagery is now well within my comfort zone.
    You and I both know that the gay community is seeking equivelency in expression to the hetero commmunity. In the same way the feminist movement was seeking to have Female General Officers running the Pentagon (not because they care a whit about the Pentagon mind you) the Gay community wants to see openly gay people in Army dress uniforms holding hands. Even the young of America are probably not ready for that. Especially the young, homophobic, soldiers. You can legislate that it’s allowed, but you can’t legislate attitude and how people behave in response to it.

  11. 11
    Greta Christina

    I think that by pressing to hard you achieve the inverse of what you are trying to achieve.

    The entire history of social change movements proves you wrong. No social change movement has ever moved forward by sitting back and waiting for their rights to be handed to them. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” The only way to change minds is to keep presenting new ideas that people aren’t comfortable with — over and over and over again.
    Yes, there is sometimes backlash. That is a natural consequence of people being asked to think about things they don’t want to think about, and to change in ways they don’t want to change. But waiting until people are ready for change has never been an effective strategy. All it does is postpone the backlash – it doesn’t avoid it. How are we to get people ready for new ideas, if not by presenting them?
    Besides, change of this kind is often generational. People over 60 are, on average, fairly uncomfortable with homosexuality. People from 40-60 are somewhat comfortable with it. People from 20-40 are almost entirely comfortable with it. That’s because young people have been exposed to LGBT people and the ideas of the LGBT movement for their entire life. How, exactly, were we to make that happen, if not by getting our ideas in people’s faces for decades?
    If you’re going to continue to argue that social change happens most effectively by sitting back and waiting until people are ready for it, I am not going to waste any more time debating with you. Your concern is duly noted. Thank you for sharing.

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