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What Is a Civil Union?

Same-sex marriage legislation in the U.S.

by Ricco Villanueva Siasoco
Vermont Rep. Bill Lippert

Vermont Rep. Bill Lippert, the only openly gay lawmaker in the House, speaks about the same sex union bill on March 15, 2000. The landmark bill provides more rights and benefits for same-sex couples than any other state in the country. (Source/AP)

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The Vermont Senate and House voted in 2000 to enact into law a bill recognizing civil unions between gay or lesbian couples. Building on an earlier state Supreme Court decision, the groundbreaking bill granted the same rights and benefits to same-sex couples as married couples.

The Vermont bill is notable not only for its progressive agenda, but because it stands in stark contrast to the anti-gay marriage laws of more than 32 states and the federal government.

Why Marriage isn't a Civil Union, and Vice Versa

The union of same-sex couples has created a great deal of controversy on moral and philosophical grounds. But separate from these perspectives, the controversy has created a sticking point for the state: Can a couple of the same sex be married?

In the eyes of the state, the definition of marriage is the legal union of a man and a woman. Married couples are entitled to rights and protections in areas such as medical care, adoption, and taxes. If a husband or wife falls ill, for example, the spouse is often entitled to make the necessary medical decisions.

Vermont's legislators, seeking to protect the legal institution of marriage, adopted a different term—"civil union"—to apply to same-sex unions. As E. J. Graff, author of What is Marriage For?, recently wrote in The Advocate, the leading gay and lesbian news magazine, "The Vermont [Supreme Court] opinion elegantly peeled off that contentious verbal wrapper—marriage, with all its veil-trailing, bell-ringing associations—to expose the hundreds upon hundreds of civil rights and obligations that pulse just underneath."

Passage in Vermont Sparks a Trend

In 2000, following Vermont's decision to legally recognize civil unions, several states defeated bills that would have banned state benefits for same-sex unions. In 2005, Connecticut passed laws that extend rights to same-sex couples. New Jersey and New Hampshire followed in 2006 and 2007, respectively.

Hawaii the First State to Raise the Issue

Vermont was not the first state to attempt such socially progressive legislation. In 1993, two men in Hawaii applied for a marriage license and were denied. The couple brought their case, Baehr v. Miike, to Hawaii's Supreme Court, which ruled in May 1993 that the denial of the license was equivalent to discrimination—a violation of the state's constitution.

In 1998, the Hawaii legislature took up the issue. The debate continued over a constitutional amendment to bar same-sex marriages and render the courts' ruling null and void. In the end, legislators passed the anti-gay marriage amendment, and sent a clear statement to the rest of the nation.

The Federal Defense of Marriage Act

Recent state activity may have been affected by a clear message from Congress in 1996. The Defense of Marriage Act was passed that year and signed into law by President Clinton. DOMA, as it has come to be known, officially barred federal benefits to same-sex partners.

Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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