April 22, 2005
CIVIL UNIONS AND GAY MARRIAGE COMPARED
By: Susan Price, Principal Legislative Analyst
You asked how civil unions and gay marriage differ. The Office of Legislative Research is not authorized to give legal opinions and this report should not be considered such.
Proponents of laws permitting same-sex couples to marry have argued that civil union laws do not give them the same benefits as marriage. In their view, requiring same-sex couples to go through a different process is inherently stigmatizing and deprives their unions of the cultural status associated with marriage.
They also argue that while other states generally recognize the validity of marriages performed elsewhere, they need not afford parties to out-of-state civil unions the same benefits that they give to married couples. This could mean that same-sex couples whose union is valid in Vermont lose the privileges and benefits associated with this status (such as the right to visit their partner in a hospital) when they leave the state.
Those opposing both same-sex unions and marriage maintain that individual states cannot be forced to recognize either of these civil relationships, even if other states do. They rely on a federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act, which specifies this, as well as court precedents permitting states to refuse to recognize the validity of other states' laws if doing so would violate a strongly held public policy.
The legal arguments on both sides are complex and theoretical, and have not yet been tested in the courts.