Gay Marriage, Domestic Partnerships and Civil Unions

Commenters on this blog certainly know their history in regards to the tradition of marriage, per my post “Fatherly advice.”

I was on FactCheck.org recently and found this string that I think is helpful to the debate on gay marriage. FactCheck.org is a non-partisan site and even Dick Cheney referred to it in his debate with Jon Edwards in 2004 (Cheney called it FactCheck.com, which I prayed was a porn site because I immediately realized he screwed up the URL). And here’s what the site has to say about gay marriage, Civil unions, and Domestic Partnerships. There is no information about avoiding death taxes by having fathers marry daughters or mother marry sons (ick, ick, ick).

The Government Accountability Office identifies 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.

The Meaning of “Marriage”

The least concrete difference between civil unions and marriage is also perhaps the most polarizing: the term “marriage” and the social and cultural weight it bears. For many, this is not just a semantic issue. Opponents are concerned that allowing gays to marry will dilute the term “marriage,” threatening the institution it stands for. Supporters, meanwhile, feel that setting up a marriage-like institution for gays (such as civil unions) while defining marriage as fundamentally heterosexual is an example of flawed “separate but equal” legislation.

In an interview with FactCheck.org, Paul Cates of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project at the American Civil Liberties Union stressed the cultural significance of marriage: “You’re not a little kid dreaming about your civil union day. It’s your wedding day.” When you want to commit to a partner, “you’re not really thinking about the [legal] protections,” he says. “It’s the significance and what it means to be married and hold yourself out as married.”

Opponents of gay marriage also recognize the social importance of the word. Jenny Tyree, associate analyst for marriage at Focus on the Family, a Christian organization headed by James C. Dobson, says her group “does not believe that marriage has to be redefined to care for all the people in society. We understand that every person has needs and people they want to care for. But these are pretty bold attempts to undermine the marriage institution.”

Focus on the Family and other groups that oppose same-sex marriage are not just concerned with terminology. “Marriage is important because it’s a time-honored enduring social institution that serves women, men and children,” Tyree says. “And civil unions undermine marriage by reducing it to a bundle of rights and benefits.” Despite difficulties like divorce, marriage “is still an institution that does what we need it to do for children,” she adds.

Such views seem to be in the majority. A 2003 Pew Research Center survey showed that 56 percent of respondents agreed that gay marriage would undermine the traditional family.

As previously noted, even states that allow for same-sex civil unions or domestic partnerships – including California, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont and Washington have passed laws defining marriage as something that occurs between a man and a woman. Liberal-leaning politicians have made that distinction as well: Most of the Democratic candidates set to debate these issues support extending all the federal legal rights of married couples to same-sex couples – but they don’t want to call that “marriage.”

by Jess Henig and Lori Robertson

Update Aug. 9: Our article originally said that Jenny Tyree of Focus on the Family cited studies showing that children do better when raised by a married mother and father. Better than what, though? When we had a chance to do a little more checking, we found that research does seem to show that children raised by married biological parents are better off on average than those raised by cohabiting biological parents. In addition, other studies show that children raised by both parents fare better than children raised by one. Studies have also shown, though, that children raised by homosexual parents are just as emotionally and socially healthy as those raised by heterosexual parents. The Child Welfare League of America says of its position on same-sex parenting: “Studies using diverse samples and methodologies in the last decade have persuasively demonstrated that there are no systematic differences between gay or lesbian and non-gay or lesbian parents in emotional health, parenting skills, and attitudes toward parenting.”

  2 comments for “Gay Marriage, Domestic Partnerships and Civil Unions

  1. September 26, 2007 at 7:12 pm

    One of the biggest stumbling blocks of same-gender marriage is the duality of the term marriage. In the US “marriage” refers to both a civil contract (through a government-issued marriage license) and, to many, a religious sacrament.
    NO ONE would force any religious institution to perform weddings between two men or two women. Gay marriage would simply expand the parameters of the civil contract.
    I have a tough time grasping how expanding marriage threatens anyone’s traditions or values.
    I’m reminded of my favorite pro-choice bumper sticker. To paraphrase: “Against Same-Sex Marriage? Then don’t have one.”
    It really is that simple.

  2. September 27, 2007 at 10:17 am

    I will once again post for Chuck DeVore, he is busy representing the people.

    “Dan,

    You are not a member of Focus on the Family, so you have no right to talk about them. Only members of Focus on the Family can know about Family Ethos. It is proven scientific fact that a normal family with a husband, wife and kids is the only way to raise a child properly. You do not know anything about that, and seek to destroy the American Family. You liberals really hate families, I love families. Please watch my interview on ABC News, ok so it is the crapy Sacramento affiliate but who cares, I will tell people it is ABC News. So watch it and see me on TV talk about my expertise on Marriage.

    All the Best

    Chuck DeVore”

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