“Instead of trying to get married, same-sex couples should just get a civil union, they work exactly the same!” – argument I have heard repeatedly in discussions over the MN Marriage Amendment.
Well, no, they don’t. Not by a long shot. And sometimes this argument comes from people who are enjoying the very rights that they are fighting to prevent same-sex couples from getting. The best that can be said about this opinion is that it’s “unaware” of the significant advantages that marriage has over a civil union. At worst, it’s a lie about which some people prefer that you never ask questions, since it falls apart rather quickly. In reality, the only thing that is “like” marriage in the U.S. is… marriage.
A civil union is, at its heart, a legal agreement between two people. It does provide some benefits that (at a significant cost and a lot of time to draw up) can get a couple who is unable to get married slightly closer to the position a married couple gets automatically for their $40 marriage license fee. The very fact that one section of the population should have to pay thousands of dollars in fees and spend hundreds of hours to get some of the rights that others get for $40 is unfair from the get-go, but to make matters worse this approach misses a massive swath of rights, especially at the Federal level. And there is no recourse the get those rights, civil union or not.
As a perfect example, see this link from CNN on the money that same-sex couples end up paying as additional taxes, because of differences in the ways they have to file Federal taxes: you can’t sign a “civil union” contract with a partner that would force the Federal government to tax you at the same rates as married couples. In specific situations, this can mean massively larger tax bills.
In fairness, what this article fails to point out is that some same-sex couple would actually end up (eventually) paying more taxes as a married couple, thanks to the so-called “marriage penalty“. That applies in cases where the two partners are earning similar taxable incomes. But different-sex couples still choose to get married (in massive numbers, some repeatedly) in spite of the tax “marriage penalty”: this shows how important an institution marriage is and how important (and valuable) the other benefits are, that it certainly doesn’t seem to be convincing a lot of people to stay single. In any case, the “marriage penalty” has been a non-issue for most couples for several years now; it may return in 2013, depending on what Congress does about extending the penalty elimination implemented in 2001 that was set to expire at the end of 2011.
So for this reason as well as hundreds of others, a civil union is not a valid alternative, and cannot be. Pension rights, hospital visitation rights, treatment in court cases, implicit legal agreements, treatment by companies for death and disability claims, health directives… the list goes on and on and on. At the end of the day, there is a group of people in this country who want equal treatment under the law, and the equal application of rights: our first reaction as citizens who enjoy those rights already should NOT be “well, maybe someday, if they fight for years to get something like civil unions approved in all states against major opposition, they might get some percentage of those rights, eventually.” And our first reaction should also never be “I’m OK with this group getting the same rights I have, as long as they change the name so that it is distinguishable from this other group of people who might be offended by you getting the same rights they do.” Your first reaction, if you truly believe in the principles of equality, should be “equal rights for everyone NOW.”