What Is a Civil Union?

Updated September 9, 2022 | Infoplease Staff

On July 1, 2000, Vermont became the first state in the country to legally recognize civil unions between gay or lesbian couples. Building on a state Supreme Court decision in Dec. 1999, which ruled that denying gay couples the benefits of marriage was unconstitutional discrimination, the ground-breaking law grants the same state benefits, civil rights, and protections to same-sex couples as to married couples. In Oct. 2005, Connecticut became the second U.S. state legalizing civil unions. New Jersey became the third in Dec. 2006, and New Hampshire the fourth in 2007.

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

Same-sex unions have provoked enormous controversy on moral and philosophical grounds, but separate from these issues, they have raised a legal quagmire: can a couple of the same sex be married, given that the very definition of marriage is the legal union of a man and a woman? To solve this problem and to protect the legal institution of marriage, Vermont's legislators adopted a different term-“civil union“-to apply to same-sex marriages. Couples in a civil union would thus be entitled to the same legal rights as married couples.

Hawaii the First to Raise the Issue

Vermont was not the first state to attempt socially progressive legislation benefiting gays. In 1993, two men in Hawaii applied for a marriage license and were turned away. 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, and passed a state constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriages, thus rendering the earlier decision by the Hawaii Supreme Court unconstitutional.

Same-Sex Marriage Ban in 32 States

The progressive Vermont law stands in stark contrast to the antigay marriage laws of more than 32 states and the federal government. Just months before passage of the Vermont law, California-with an eighth of the United States' population-voted against recognition of gay unions. Proposition 22, passed on March 7, 2000, ensures that most state benefits of married couples are not extended to same-sex couples. California is not alone. In total, 32 states have passed similar legislation, and on the federal level, the Defense of Marriage Act was passed in 1996, barring federal benefits to same-sex partners. On the other hand, several states in 2000 defeated bills that would have banned state benefits for same-sex unions, including Mississippi, New Hampshire, and New Mexico. In 2008, New York and Oregon became two more states to recognize same-sex unions.

Sources +