Marriage vs Civil Union

Casey and I have been dialoging about same sex marriages at his place. It got me to wondering about the differences between civil unions and marriages. I found some interesting verbiage on it at the Fact Check website. Here are a few interesting excerpts from it:

We find three main differences between civil unions and marriage as it's traditionally viewed:
  • The right to federal benefits. States that allow some type of same-sex union are able to grant only state rights. The Defense of Marriage Act passed in 1996 prohibits same-sex couples from receiving federal marriage rights and benefits.
  • Portability. Because civil unions are not recognized by all states, such agreements are not always valid when couples cross state lines.
  • Terminology. "Marriage" is a term that conveys societal and cultural meaning, important to both gay rights activists and those who don't believe gays should marry.
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, stipulated that for all federal legal purposes “marriage” is a union between one man and one woman. Because of that legislation, all federal laws pertaining to married couples apply exclusively to opposite-sex couples.

The Government Accountability Office lists 1,138 federal laws that pertain to married couples. Many in that long list may be minor or only relevant to small groups of citizens. However, a number of provisions are key to what constitutes a marriage legally in the United States:

  • Taxes. Couples in a civil union may file a joint state tax return, but they must file federal tax returns as single persons. This may be advantageous to some couples, not so for others. One advantage for married couples is the ability to transfer assets and wealth without incurring tax penalties. Partners in a civil union aren't permitted to do that, and thus may be liable for estate and gift taxes on such transfers.
  • Health insurance. The state-federal divide is even more complicated in this arena. In the wake of the Massachusetts high court ruling, the group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders put together a guide to spousal health care benefits. GLAD’s document is Massachusetts-specific but provides insight into how health insurance laws would apply to those in a civil union in other states. In general, GLAD says, it comes down to what’s governed by state law and what’s subject to federal oversight. If a private employer’s health plans are subject to Massachusetts state insurance laws, benefits must be extended to a same-sex spouse. If the health plan is governed by federal law, the employer can choose whether or not to extend such benefits.
  • Social Security survivor benefits. If a spouse or divorced spouse dies, the survivor may have a right to Social Security payments based on the earnings of the married couple, rather than only the survivor’s earnings. Same-sex couples are not eligible for such benefits.

Other federal areas in which couples in civil unions don't have the same rights as married couples include immigration (a partner who's a foreign national can't become an American by entering into a civil union with someone) and veterans' and military benefits (only opposite-sex spouses have a right to pensions, compensation for service-related deaths, medical care, housing and the right to burial in veterans’ cemeteries). Gay couples, however, may actually benefit when applying for programs such as Medicaid or government housing that require low-income eligibility. A spouse’s income is included in such applications, but a same-sex partner’s income is not. One change has been made in federal law: A provision in the Pension Protection Act of 2006 allows same-sex couples to transfer 401(k) and IRA earnings to partners without penalty.

So, I guess that the main difference between these two is very legal in nature and may not really mean much in the actual practice of living together as a couple.. with the exception of the perception of legitimacy. If a couple is legally recognized by the state (as civilly joined) then, from what I can see, the argument here is a legal one of federal proportions.

What do you think? Is the difference between marriage and civil unions mainly a legal one or is it more about being legitimate? Or am I missing something?


  1. I think for a gay couple, it's neither.(Certainly in part) But I believe they are looking at the bigger picture. They see it as civil rights issue - they equate this fight to the women's suffrage or the civil rights movement of the 60s.

  2. In my view marriage should still be exclusively between a man and women. The heart of this argument really comes down as to whether you believe people are born gay. I do not believe people are born gay so this frames my view on this entire topic.

    This in my view is a matter of choice and therefore does not belong in the same discussion as what happened in the 60's with the Civil Rights movement.

    I don't have a problem with some level of partner protection but this could be down in a will or some other legal avenue.

    Call these unions whatever you want but it should never be called marriage because it violates the very essence of what marriage is and that is a spiritual and legal union between a man and women.

  3. Matt want to say respectfully that you’re wrong on being born gay and it being a choice. I have gay friends and I speak very openly about the issues. I want you to know that we are very honest with each other about how it is to be gay. I spent several hours talking to a friend the other night and into the early morning about her being gay. She didn’t come out easily and spent most of her life in fear, woman who were out were being hurt by stupid men. She’s a preacher’s kid so she was afraid of hurting her parents and afraid of God. How would you feel in her shoes? To be attracted to a person who was going to send you to hell everyday of your life is misery. She was married to a woman who just wasn’t and still isn’t ready to grow up, she still morns her loss of the marriage, her hurt is real pain. She feels that had she been able to be married under the law that the break up might not have happened. I’m going through a divorce now and I can tell you that it’s hard and the pain is deep. When we stand in judgment without getting all the side we are only one sided.

  4. I believe that homosexuality is a sin and I do not believe that God would create a person only to judge them for that very creation later.

    I do not pretend to understand what or how people feel who are gay but I also know that we cannot allow Marriage to be used as political pawn in this debate on sexual orientation.

  5. Great dialog Matt and Milly.

    IMHO I think that I agree with Stephanie that homosexuals see marriage as something that they should be leaglly entitled to.

    I also agree with Matt that the arguement is all about whether a person is born gay or not. If one is gay from birth then an argument could be made that marriage is a civil right.. if not the argument falls flat.

    I wonder though, how does one prove that they are homosexual from birth.. I do not believe that all homosexuals are that way from birth.. interesting discussion.

  6. Matt,
    You have every right to feel that way but this is what she said to me. Choice! Do you honestly think that I would chose this? Chose not to have children, chose to live in fear, chose to hurt my family. Do you think that I would want any of this? She’s an intelligent and hard working woman. She works two jobs and they are both mentally and physically challenging I want you to know this because this isn’t a woman who is just playing at life. She married for life and her wife walked away she thinks that if they had the legal process to deal with it might have been harder to just go. I’m not sure of that but she still loves the woman. I don’t think it’s a choice and in spending time talking to her I’m convinced that it isn’t for her.

    You’d never be able to work where I work because there are several gay people working with me. They are nice just like other people and I’m betting that they don’t think it’s a choice at all.

    I will say that one woman that I worked with went out with both that’s a choice she made but not all cases are like that.

    My friend cares not what the law calls it BTW she just want the law with her.

    Bottom line is that it’s not for me to judge I can only give them the hope that Jesus loves them after some Christian have told them He doesn’t.

  7. KB,
    I do think that some are born that way and even Dobson says so although he won’t admit it. He said that some children show early signs. If you are gay at an early age then you most likely are born that way. I’ve also spoken to some folks who have that story of being molested and are now gay. Is that then a choice for these cases? I have no doubt that some folks just experiment because that’s a hip thing. I don’t believe that my friend chose this in fact she said that she tried to hide her feeling and that she tried to deny her feelings all through highschool and college. Her Christian upbringing and Christian college (A will known one in these parts and on TV) made her one unhappy lady because she was so afraid. Not just afraid of hurting her family but also of being killed. Try to imagine what it is like to be in fear of loving someone and being killed for holding hands in public. I do think they should have the same rights we do. God will sort it out as He chooses. Do I think it’s a sin? Sure but I’d never ever say to a friend “Love the sinner hate the sin” That’s like say here let me hug you while stabbing you.

  8. Milly,

    I have worked with and known several gay people. I try and treat all people with respect and dignity. That is not the issue we were discussing.

    Even though I treat all people fairly I think marriage is a legal/spiritual matter between a man and women.

  9. Matt,
    I’m glad to hear that you are a nice person.
    My friend said she cares not what they call it she just wants the same rights that you and I have.

    I think she should have them.

    Thanks for chatting it up with me.


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