Civil unions neither utopia nor abyss


POSTED: Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Both sides in the emotional argument about allowing civil unions for same-sex couples in Hawaii seem to agree on one thing: It would lead to legalization of gay marriage. That progression has yet to happen anywhere in the country and such a stepping stone in Hawaii is unlikely, like it or not. The issue of whether to allow civil unions should be considered and approved apart from any wish or fear that same-sex marriage is around the corner.

Massachusetts and Connecticut are the only two states where same-sex marriages are legal as a result of court decisions, not legislation. Similarly, a state Supreme Court ruling in California granted marriage rights to same-sex couples, but voters in favor of Proposition 8 overturned the decision last November. A challenge of the referendum is on appeal, supported by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Gay couples are recognized as civil unions, with legal rights comparable to those of straight couples, in Vermont, New Hampshire and New Jersey - all three because of state legislation. Nine years after recognizing civil unions, Vermont's legislature has yet to escort those couples the next step to the altar, although such a bill is active in this year's session.

“;Nothing significant changed for many, many Vermonters nine years ago,”; said Rep. David Zuckerman. “;There was this great fear. And what we've really seen in the last nine years is that fear was unfounded.”;

A similar upgrade is proposed in New Jersey, supported by Democratic Gov. John Corzine. New Hampshire lawmakers are considering a bill to expand the civil-union benefits to include state insurance laws, but it would not recognize gay marriages.

Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Maine and the District of Columbia have laws extending certain rights to domestic partners in varying degrees. The Hawaii Legislature enacted a law in 1997 that recognizes “;reciprocal beneficiaries,”; granting gay partners probate, hospital visitation and other rights that had been limited to legal spouses.

Opponents of the civil union bill maintain that it would recognize marriages under a different name, while pro-gay skeptics say it would come up short by treating gay couples as “;separate but equal.”; Under the bill before the Legislature, recognition of gay partnerships as civil unions would give partners “;all the same rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities under the law.”;

But not really, because it pertains only to state, not federal, law. Gay partners continue to be denied Social Security benefits, federal tax status, tax-free inheritance, spousal immigration rights and myriad other federal benefits, even partners in gay marriages recognized in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Congress does not appear close to repealing the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which keeps intact that denial of recognition where it counts most.