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Domestic Partnerships  
 
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The Debate over Domestic Partnerships

Despite the fact that many governments and private companies have extended domestic partnership benefits and/or created domestic partnership registries, the debate over these programs continues to rage.

Many companies are unwilling to enact domestic partnerships because they fear being boycotted by conservative consumers in response, or because they believe that individuals will register partnerships that do not exist in order to gain access to the benefits. However, even companies that have been threatened with a boycott in response to their domestic partner policies (such as Disney, for example) have found no adverse economic impact after enacting them. Additionally, the stringent requirements for proof of a relationship and the signing of affidavits (which are not imposed on married couples) make it difficult to establish a fraudulent relationship.

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In political jurisdictions where domestic partnerships are being considered, the conservative response is usually rapid and very strong. Despite the fact that enacting domestic partnerships falls far short of granting the full benefits of marriage, many conservatives are opposed to their existence, arguing that legal recognition of same-sex relationships is tantamount to approval of homosexuality.

The pattern is for conservatives to say that they are in favor of domestic partnerships or civil unions when same-sex marriage is debated, but then to withdraw their support and fight equally hard against domestic partnerships.

Conservative groups have, with occasional success, brought suit against municipalities that have offered domestic partner benefits or established domestic partner registries, alleging that such actions encroach on the powers of states to establish and regulate marriage.

Conservatives also often try to pass state Defense of Marriage Acts that define marriage as existing only between a man and a woman so that domestic partnership policies can not evolve into something bigger. Some states, particularly Georgia and Virginia, go so far as to prohibit private insurance companies within their borders from covering domestic partner health benefits. Georgia even prohibits companies from contracting with out-of-state insurers for this purpose.

Not only conservatives oppose domestic partnerships, however. Some glbtq groups are also opposed to the policies. While they are a way of providing some rights and benefits, the policies are seen as a compromise and a concession that may make it harder for full marriage equality to be obtained in the future. Some groups view domestic partnership as a kind of "marriage apartheid" that consigns same-sex couples to a separate and lesser form of union.

On the other hand, most glbtq advocates and organizations have strongly argued in favor of domestic partnerships, without abandoning arguments for marriage. For many of these individuals and groups, domestic partnerships offer a means to achieve something near equality in benefits for gay and lesbian families. In a workplace environment where fringe benefits represent a substantial fraction of one's compensation, their availability only to legally married opposite-sex couples often leads to striking inequities for same-sex couples that are, at least partially, remediated by domestic partner benefits. Especially for those whose partner or child is without health insurance, these policies can make a real difference.

Domestic partnership policies also lend some legitimacy to a relationship in the eyes of a couple's family and coworkers and force others to take the existence of a partner seriously.

Often the adoption of domestic partnership laws is a preliminary step to adopting marriage equality, as in the cases of Vermont, Connecticut, and New Hampshire.

Alternatives to Domestic Partnership

Civil unions, like those originally granted in Vermont, are similar to marriages under state law--they grant the same benefits under state taxation, the same child care arrangements, the same medical decision making powers, and are even performed by officiants such as justices of the peace. However, like domestic partners, civil union partners are not eligible for federal marriage benefits.

While civil unions have many of the same problems as domestic partnerships, the rights that they grant tend to be more extensive. In European countries, for example, civil union benefits often approach the level of benefits accorded to married opposite-sex couples, but frequently do not include adoption rights.

Full marriage rights, like those granted to heterosexual couples in the United States, are another option. Full marriage would give same-sex couples equal footing with heterosexual ones with regard to finances, health care, children, divorce, and every other aspect of the relationship, including the dignity typically accorded to marriage.

However, even the states that grant full marriage rights to same-sex couples cannot grant same-sex couples equal rights. Under the federal Defense of Marriage Act, individual states are permitted to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed outside their borders. Moreover, federal benefits are still not available to legally married same-sex couples.

Within the confines of the institution of marriage, there are different options for the type of marriage offered. One type of marriage is religious marriage. While the United States technically maintains the separation of church and state, many marriages performed in the United States are religious marriages, where a clergy person officiates at both the religious and the civil ceremonies.

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