Civil Unions

Civil Unions

Rose MacDowell

Before gay marriage was codified into law in the US, civil unions were common in many states. Civil unions are legal unions for gay couples that were once considered similar to marriage, but lacked certain rights such as inheritance, divorce, and adoption. Civil unions still exist in many countries, particularly those that don't allow legally recognized gay marriage. 

How did civil unions start, and what were their benefits and drawbacks? Do some couples still choose civil unions over marriage? Are there civil unions for straight couples? Let's take a deeper dive into the topic of civil unions, and find out how they've impacted relationships, society, and marriage laws.

What Are Civil Unions?

A civil union is a legal union between two people who are not married. It can provide many of the same benefits as marriage, but may not be recognized by other countries or states. Since the Supreme Court legalized gay and non-binary marriage in 2015, civil unions have largely been phased out or automatically converted by the states into legal marriages. 

In the US, civil unions were considered a type of "separate but equal" status that many people, gay and straight, objected to. Some countries, like Brazil, created civil unions for straight couples and later expanded them to cover gay couples, as well. The majority of countries that established civil unions have since legalized gay marriage, but some countries still have no alternative to civil unions for gay couples. 

Most countries that adopted gay marriage laws automatically conferred marriage rights to couples in civil unions once gay marriage became legal. 

Countries that offer civil unions to gay couples (but not marriage) include: 

  • Andorra
  • Aruba
  • Chile
  • Croatia 
  • Cyprus
  • Estonia
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Israel
  • Italy
  • Monaco
  • Slovenia
  • Cayman Islands

How Did Civil Unions Start?

Civil unions are often viewed by LGBTQ + rights activists as a step toward legal marriage and not an end in themselves. In 1989, Denmark became the first country in the world to legalize civil unions. Domestic partnership laws existed in other Western democracies, but most of these countries did not establish civil union laws until a decade after Denmark's landmark ruling became law.

In 2000, Vermont became the first state in America to recognize civil unions. Other states such as Massachusetts soon followed, and some states made gay marriage legal, setting up challenges to the law that wound through state and federal courts over several years. 

Benefits Of Civil Unions

Though civil unions aren't as protective as marriage in many cases, there are many benefits. Some of these include:

  • Inheritance rights, which refer to the right to inherit money, property, or other assets from your partner when they die
  • Bereavement and parental leave
  • A right to your partner's employment benefits, such as dental and health insurance
  • The designation as next-of-kin by medical professionals and the law
  • The ability to jointly own property, or to enjoy community property rights if you're in a community property state
  • The right to file taxes jointly as a couple
  • The recognition by law of your parental rights 
  • The legal right to refuse to testify against your partner
  • The right to pursue financial support or alimony if the civil union is dissolved

Disadvantages Of Civil Unions

While there are many benefits to having a civil union, there are also disadvantages. Drawbacks to civil unions may include the following:

  • Civil unions aren't recognized by every state or country. As such, they're not considered valid in every state.
  • Civil unions don't automatically confer the same rights as traditional marriages. For example, a couple in a civil union may not have a right to federal benefits such as a partner's social security payments. 
  • Civil unions feel different. After all, a civil union isn’t an official marriage license. It simply gives couples the right to share property and benefits. A civil union can create a sense of discrimination, a feeling of being "separate but equal," similar to American Jim Crow laws of the 19th century. 

Domestic Partnerships Vs. Civil Unions

While civil union laws in many cases aim to give partners similar benefits and rights to those enjoyed by married couples, domestic partnerships are typically more limited.

Domestic partnerships may, for example, allow one partner to be covered under the other's health insurance policy, but not allow for other important considerations. These may include:

  • A legal right to alimony or financial support if the partnerships dissolves
  • Parental rights 
  • The ability to file joint tax returns
  • The right to pension and other federal or state financial benefits

As a general rule, marriage affords the greatest number of rights and benefits to both gay and straight couples, civil unions are the next best legal arrangement, and domestic partnerships offer the fewest benefits to people in long-term partnerships. 

Civil Unions and Catholicism

Traditional Catholic doctrine states that marriage between a man and a woman is the foundation for a happy, healthy family. Sex outside marriage is considered evil and, while gay people aren't seen as inherently sinful, their actions are viewed as "harmful" to society.

Pope Francis surprised many in the Catholic world when he stated publicly that gay people are children of God. While he didn't endorse gay marriage, he did state that civil union law should be created so that gay couples can enjoy legal benefits and visitation rights. The Vatican later clarified that the church doctrine remains unchanged.

Public support for Civil Unions from Pope Francis is not completely new. When he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires and in interviews with the press, he mentioned civil unions for gay couples. The Pope has said that while church doctrine remains the same, he sees evidence that the institution is changing how it defines family.

Pope Francis has also talked about a new definition of family that can include gay people and reduce discrimination and government persecution. Pope Francis has discussed extending mercy to others, including those whose beliefs and actions may not be sanctioned by society. The Pope has stressed that the doors of churches should remain open to everyone of all genders and sexual orientations.