Monday, November 26, 2007

Civil Unions vs. Marriage

Civil unions represent progress to many activists within the movement for LGBT rights towards full marriage for same-sex couples. In fact, this position remains the national movement's de facto stance in its talking points, messages and other public statements. Yet this idea, which came into being after the Vermont Supreme Cout mandated lawmakers in the Green Mountain State to extend recognition to gay and lesbian couples in 1999, raises several problems as detailed in my feature in Nothing remains cut and dry. And this issue remains squarely among them.

With New Hampshire's civil unions law slated to take effect within weeks, the University of New Hampshire is struggling to address how the statute will impact the benefits it currently offers to the partners of its gay and lesbian employees. The state has announced it will no longer offer domestic partner benefits, but local activists contend they remain necessary because of health care, adoption and other concerns.

"Our position is that you should not end DP benefits because not everyone is going to enter into civil unions," New Hampshire Freedom to Marry Executive Director Mo Baxley told in a recent interview from her office in Concord, New Hampshire. "Those are very legitimate issues."

UNH officials declined to comment, but they are among employers in New Hampshire and other states that have had to address these concerns as legislation extending legal protections and recognition to gay and lesbian couples takes effect.

Carol Buckheit, associate director of the Hartford, Conn.-based Love Makes a Family, said a number of same-sex couples called her organization with concerns about their DP benefits after the state's civil unions law took effect in October 2005. She did not identify specific cases in which employees lost their benefits. But Buckheit maintained that these concerns highlight the need for same-sex nuptials.

"What we're seeing is a patchwork of laws across the country: domestic partnerships, civil unions and marriage in Massachusetts," she said. "States are struggling with how to deal with each other's patchwork of laws [and] in our view the solution is marriage."

Garden State Equality Executive Director Steven Goldstein echoed this conclusion. New Jersey's civil unions law, which took effect in February, did not automatically upgrade the domestic partnerships of same-sex couples who registered after former Gov. James E. McGreevy created a registry in 2004. Goldstein estimates nearly 1,800 gay and lesbian couples have taken advantage of the new law. But he quickly concluded it fails to provide the full range of protections that marriage affords.

"More and more couples are waiting for marriage because they see that New Jersey's civil union law is a total fiasco, failing to work to provide all the rights [and] benefits of marriage," Goldstein said.

Basic Rights Oregon executive director John Hummel took a more nuanced approach in response to the domestic partnership bill Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed into law in May. He conceded the statute only extends state benefits to same-sex couples that their heterosexual counterparts automatically receive through marriage. But Hummel told he feels it benefits both businesses and gay and lesbian couples whose employers and municipalities may not have recognized their relationships.

"It has been a patchwork quilt of coverage with some companies and some cities and counties providing domestic partner benefits and others that didn't," he said. "It would be beneficial for businesses in the state because it would be one rule."

Hummel added BRO is planning to distribute literature and other information about the law once it takes effect on January 1.

"I know there is a lot of excitement among same-sex couples who have waited so long for their rights," he said. "We are preparing materials for people so they can understand their new rights under the law."

Oregon, California, Vermont and Hawai'i are among the handful of states which either legally recognize same-sex couples or extend legal protections and benefits through domestic partnerships and civil unions. Massachusetts remains the only state to allow gays and lesbians to marry. Freedom to Marry executive director Evan Wolfson affirmed the conclusion that marriage remains the only solution for same-sex couples.

"The creation of a separate state-level legal status, whether called civil union or partnership, unnecessarily complicates the lives of the families and the businesses and others they deal with," he told in an e-mail. "The easiest and right solution is to end exclusion from marriage itself, rather than constructing new legal mechanisms that present equal treatment and inclusion."

Baxley agreed.

"As more of these stories become public, we're going to be back in a couple of years... and finish the job," she said.

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