Phasing out Civil Unions for the Sake of Marriage Equality is a Bad Idea

Last week, each of us independently posted an article from the Catholic Herald called “Don’t convert same-sex civil partnerships automatically into marriages, urge bishops” on our personal Facebook pages. Bishops in the UK are concerned that gay and lesbian Catholics who entered into civil partnerships in order to access legal protections will find themselves at odds with their faith tradition’s teachings on marriage if these partnerships are automatically converted into marriages without their consent. We thought the article from the UK context would generate a lot of interesting conversation because we both have diverse circles of friends with a wide range of views on sexual ethics and marriage equality. Upon seeing our friends’ responses, we were surprised by two things. 1) Very few of our American friends realized that some US states have already converted existing civil unions into marriages. 2) Many of our American friends with a more progressive sexual ethic were mystified as to why any LGBT couple would have a problem with their legal relationship being named a marriage. In today’s post, we want to highlight the reality that civil unions are being phased out while also discussing real concerns we have as a celibate, LGBT couple related to our various legal options.

In the United States, civil unions were once available in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Federal courts in those states have ruled that civil unions are a kind of “marriage lite” and violate equal protection. Therefore, the named states are in the process of phasing out civil unions entirely and some (e.g. Connecticut) are automatically converting or have already converted them into marriages. Civil unions are still available in some places: Colorado, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Illinois. However, we are concerned that it’s only a matter of time before civil unions become a relic of history rather than an available legal option.

We wish more Americans were talking about this issue. Why do we so readily accept marriage as the only viable legal pathway to gain certain rights and responsibilities to another significant person in your life? How is it that it is so easy to overlook the different kinds of people who benefited from the availability of civil unions? According to Cyril Ghosh of The Guardian:

“There are a number of good reasons why both heterosexual and homosexual couples may wish to enter into a civil union instead of a marriage. For example, for many couples, civil unions provide a secular alternative to marriage that aligns with their values. Some may not be ready for a commitment like “marriage” – a word that’s laden with history and tradition. Others may not wish to enter into a marriage contract because they believe the institution carries distinctly religious connotations. They may also see marriage as a patriarchal institution and be ideologically opposed to it. Finally, many couples that have been married and divorced may not be ready to marry again, even though they might want to codify their relationship with their current partners and lovers in some way.”

Civil unions also filled a void in elder care law by allowing widows and widowers legal pathways of supporting one another in various health care systems. It has been difficult for us to see civil unions as a unique concern of LGBT people. We know many who think that government should only be offering civil partnerships while letting various religious traditions retain control of the word “marriage,” and we’re mostly in agreement with that position. An oft-cited article from the New York Times highlights that as of 2010 in France where civil unions continue to be available, there are two civil unions for every three marriages. The vast majority of civil unions are amongst heterosexual people. Civil unions are slightly less popular in the Netherlands where there is one civil union for every eight marriages. Nonetheless, civil unions are thriving in these countries. They aren’t viewed as evidence of an oppressive “separate, but equal” system. They are important options for people who are willing to accept the responsibilities of being legally attached to another person, but do not, for whatever reason, want that relationship to be considered a marriage.

We should say at this point that it is not our intention to shame any of our friends and readers who have entered into same-sex marriages legally, religiously, or both. Today’s post is not meant as an argument against gay marriage, and if you’ve read many of our other posts you are likely aware that we believe all committed LGBT couples should be protected under the law and should be able to select the best available option for their particular situations and be informed by their faith traditions when making this decision. That said, we also believe it is important to ask ourselves whether the current progress of the marriage equality movement is in some ways hindering the freedoms of LGBT people who seek legal protection for their relationships, but do not want to enter into marriages.

From the beginning, we envisioned our relationship as something different from marriage. Part of this is influenced by the fact that we are part of a Christian tradition that teaches a traditional sexual ethic, and we strive to be obedient to all our tradition’s teachings. (If you’re thinking, “Why don’t you just go to a different church?” read this. We’ve already answered that question.) But the more significant reason is the conviction we share that God has called us in a very personal way to celibacy, and using the term “marriage” would introduce confusion regarding how we understand our celibate vocation. As we’ve stated in other posts, even in the unlikely event that our Christian tradition were to change its teachings on marriage and sexuality, we still wouldn’t be interested in getting married because we don’t see “marriage” as a fitting term for the ways we relate to each other. We don’t see our relationship as a romantic one. However, it is our wish to be considered each other’s next of kin in terms of health care, end of life, financial, housing, and other kinds of legal decisions, and an arrangement of the kind previously available through civil unions in some states would have met most (though not all) of our needs.

We’ve been counseled by friends to prepare certain types of legal documents (power of attorney, healthcare directives, wills, etc.) for ourselves, and we’re in the process of doing that. Still, those types of documents only go so far. They don’t solve other problems like access to retirement funds and access to assets (of which we currently have none, but hope to have someday) without a significant tax imposed when one of us reposes. They also don’t solve the problem that when Lindsey begins a new job this August, the health insurance policy offered by the job will require the two of us to be married in order for Sarah to access benefits. As Sarah–who experiences some significant health problems–does not receive health insurance through Sarah’s own job, and we’ve already had trouble trying to acquire it through the individual marketplace, this issue is particularly pressing. We’re not suggesting that civil unions are the panacea for all these issues, but we find it interesting that the message we keep hearing from everyone we contact for help is, “Why don’t you just get married???” The specifics of what a civil union does and does not provide for isn’t really the point here. It’s that phasing out civil unions narrows the conversation about how to make sure couples who can’t get married are protected.

Our own legal knowledge is very limited and perhaps an attorney can help us sort all these matters in one way or another. But it will likely be expensive, and many of our concerns would be resolved if, like other countries, the United States had some form of civil union in every state for both opposite-sex and same-sex couples. As things stand now with the marriage equality movement, it’s unlikely that civil unions will last much longer because they have become so strongly associated with inequality. If you’re wondering at this point, “Why don’t you go somewhere that performs civil unions and get one there?” the answer is simple. Civil unions are not recognized in all US states or internationally, and there’s no guarantee that eventually the civil unions currently being performed in Illinois, Hawaii, Colorado, and New Jersey will not be automatically converted into marriages at some point within the next few years. Where we live now, we do have the option of entering into a domestic partnership, but the rights associated with this legal relationship are minimal, and they are not recognized across state lines. We also have the option of legally marrying, but to do so would not only excommunicate us within our faith tradition but would also be an act of dishonesty since we do not understand our relationship as a marriage.

The most serious problem with phasing out civil unions and converting existing ones to marriages is that it forces all people within a particular state who desire a legally recognized relationship with their significant other to achieve that by getting married (with a domestic partnership option being available only in select places). We’re grateful for the strides that the marriage equality movement has made in terms of ending certain legally-sanctioned prejudices against LGBT people and couples, but at the same time we question the belief that “freedom to marry” means freedom for all members of the LGBT community. How is it freeing to know that the only option you have for full legal recognition is marriage when you don’t want your relationship referred to as such for religious or other reasons?

We’ve been told that we’re ungrateful to want a civil union considering how many people have struggled and fought for our right to marry each other. We’ve been asked, “Isn’t marriage good enough for you?” and we’ve even been told, “If you choose not to marry, any legal problems you face are of your own making.” All this from the same people who have claimed that American society before gay marriage showed no empathy or concern for the needs of LGBT couples. Please tell us, where is the empathy and concern for celibate LGBT couples, or do we not matter because many of us belong to conservative religious traditions? And what about all other groups of people who have benefited from the availability of civil unions? When fewer people could marry, more seemed to be interested in holding conversation about the needs of those who couldn’t marry. This dialogue included a diversity of concerns that reached beyond those of LGBT people wishing to marry their partners. How have we managed to forget that diverse needs require diverse legal options, and that marriage still leaves those needs unmet for many?

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2 thoughts on “Phasing out Civil Unions for the Sake of Marriage Equality is a Bad Idea

  1. Even though I hope to eventually enter into a same-sex marriage myself one day, I think you guys raised some really important points in this article! I’ve heard the suggestion before that the state should only dole out civil unions (both to same-sex and opposite-sex couples) and leave marriages to religious institutions. Your personal story gives even more weight to this belief.

    I’m curious, though: what do you think about the mainstream LGBT movement’s (HRC’s, etc.) focus on marriage equality? To me, even though this focus has enjoyed many recent successes, it has come with some drawbacks. An insufficient emphasis on the struggles of homeless LGBT youth comes to my mind, especially (see , for example). Would you prefer to see the mainstream LGBT movement focus on different issues?

    • Hi Bridget, thanks for your comment here.

      We believe that, especially in the United States, “the fight for same-sex marriage” has become synonymous with “LGBT rights.” We find this deeply unfortunate for many reasons. We’ve previously discussed employment non-discrimination on the blog (you can read our thoughts in this post: Issues of LGBT youth homelessness are also very high on our list of concern as is gender-based violence, especially violence that targets people who do not conform to gender norms.

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