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social sciences

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Civil Union  
 
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As of 2005, two courts have recognized a civil union for marital benefits and two courts have refused to do so. Courts in Georgia and Connecticut have rejected plaintiffs' requests for recognition. The Georgia court, pointing to that state's Defense of Marriage Act, said that "a Georgia trial court is not authorized to consider a foreign 'civil union' as equivalent to marriage" (Burns v. Burns [2001]). This holding was affirmed by the Georgia Court of Appeals.

In the Connecticut case, two gay men came to Vermont for a civil union on December 31, 2000, and then sought to dissolve it back in their home state in July, 2001. The court refused to recognize the civil union or to grant the divorce. The court considered marriage and marital benefits a legislative choice, and said, "the Vermont legislature cannot legislate for the people of Connecticut" (Rosengarten v. Downes [2002]). Three years later, however, the Connecticut legislature adopted its own civil union.

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In March, 2003, a Texas trial court granted a divorce to two gay men who had entered into civil union in Vermont a year earlier (In the Matter of the Marriage of R.S. and J.A. [2003]). A furor erupted when the press reported this story. The Texas Attorney General intervened to have the divorce set aside, and the Texas Legislature quickly passed a law declaring that no court could recognize a civil union for any purpose, including divorce. At this point the couple moved to have their divorce proceeding dismissed, and the court granted this request.

In April, 2003, a New York trial court recognized civil union as equivalent to marriage for purposes of New York's Wrongful Death statute. In that case, two gay men obtained a civil union in Vermont and when one died in the hospital the other sued the hospital for medical malpractice.

To be able to bring the suit under the Wrongful Death statute the plaintiff had to qualify as the decedent's surviving spouse. The hospital argued that the plaintiff was not a spouse because the couple was not married. The court held that the men should be considered "spouses" because that is what the civil union law says they are. It concluded, "Under principles of full faith and credit . . . New York will recognize a marriage sanctioned and contracted in a sister state and there appears to be no valid legal basis to distinguish one between a same-sex couple" (Langan v. St. Vincent's Hospital [2003]).

Reactions from the Gay and Lesbian Community

While courts wrestle with the meaning and scope of civil union, it is left to the lesbian and gay community to decide on a community response to the new institution. Some have criticized it, calling civil union "separate but unequal," a new Jim Crow. But many lesbian and gay couples decided that, for now at least, civil union is an acceptable alternative to marriage.

Some, in fact, seem to prefer civil union to marriage. As one woman who had been married but now is joined in civil union with her lesbian lover told the New York Times, "I see marriage as very patriarchal and very much about property and ownership . . . but I see civil union as a completely level playing field; Theresa and I are equal partners and we are willingly doing this as equals."

As the lesbian and gay community continues to fight for the freedom to marry, the experience in Vermont with civil union stands as an important milestone. As in Vermont itself, civil union may serve as a bridge to marriage in the same way that in Europe it took a decade of experimentation with "registered partnership" before countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium were ready to open marriage to same-sex couples. In this case Vermont has played a crucial role in the long struggle for true equality in marriage.

Civil Unions in Other States

Since Vermont pioneered in introducing the civil union, seven other states have also adopted them: Connecticut, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Illinois, Hawaii, Delaware, and Rhode Island.

New Jersey's civil union was instituted in a manner similar to that in Vermont: the state supreme court found that gay and lesbian couples were treated unequally by not being able to marry but gave the legislature the option of creating civil unions in order to remedy the discrimination.

The legislatures of Connecticut, New Hampshire, Illinois, Hawaii, Delaware, and Rhode Island adopted civil unions without a directive from the courts.

However, the Connecticut Supreme Court later ruled that civil unions were inadequate and ordered that the state permit same-sex couples to marry. The New Hampshire legislature followed the pattern set by Vermont. It later adopted an equal marriage law.

Adoption of Marriage Equality in Vermont

In 2007, the Vermont legislature appointed a panel to inquire whether the civil union law was sufficient in protecting the equal rights of gay and lesbian couples. In the hearings that ensued, many gay and lesbian couples complained that some companies refused to recognize civil unions as equivalent to marriage.

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