So what is a civil union anyway?

There has been much debate about the NC marriage amendment and most of the focus has been on, yes, you guessed it, “marriage”.

And yet, the marriage amendment is not just limited to a vote on who can get married.  It is disguised (and designed as such) to have people vote against the possibility of same-sex civil unions while voting “for” the “marriage amendment”.

So what is a civil union anyway?  To answer that question, I did a little research on the topic in my sister’s home state of Vermont.

In Vermont, as of 2000, a “Civil union” meant that “two eligible persons have established a relationship pursuant to [Vermont law], and “may receive the benefits and protections and be subject to the responsibilities of spouses”.

Just to be clear to all those concerned about the institution of marriage, a “civil union” was not a marriage.  In fact, you could not be in a civil union in Vermont under this statute if you were married, and civil unions were reserved for members of the same-sex. The law did change in 2009, allowing gay marriage in Vermont, but the rules that were establised are helpful to understanding civil unions.

The thing I found most interesting about civil unions in Vermont is that there was a certain “civility” to them. In some of my previous blogs, supporters of Amendment One have been quoted as saying that the gay and lesbian community want more than just the rights of married couples; they want to redefine the definition of marriage itself.  Be that as it may, let’s look at what civil unions were all about in Vermont.

A civil union in Vermont was about extending spousal rights to same-sex couples who are recognized to have this special status by a “certificate of civil union”.

You might be surprised at the long list of spousal rights that states have in place for married couples that can become available to same-sex couples by civil union recognition.

First, parties to a civil union are “responsible for the support of one another to the same degree and in the same manner as prescribed under law for married persons” and they have the same rights under domestic laws for “separation and divorce, child custody and support, and property division and maintenance” Title 15, Chapter 23 of the Vermont Statutes.

Section 1204 of this Chapter of the Vermont statutes provided a list of examples of the “legal benefits, protections, and responsibilities of spouses, which shall apply in like manner to parties to a civil union”:

1) laws relating to title, tenure, descent and distribution, intestate succession, waiver of will, survivorship, or other incidents of the acquisition, ownership, or transfer, inter vivos or at death, of real or personal property, including eligibility to hold real and personal property as tenants by the entirety (parties to a civil union meet the common law unity of person qualification for purposes of a tenancy by the entirety);

(2) causes of action related to or dependent upon spousal status, including an action for wrongful death, emotional distress, loss of consortium, dramshop, or other torts or actions under contracts reciting, related to, or dependent upon spousal status;

(3) probate law and procedure, including nonprobate transfer;

(4) adoption law and procedure;

(5) group insurance for state employees under 3 V.S.A. § 631, and continuing care contracts under 8 V.S.A. § 8005;

(6) spouse abuse programs under 3 V.S.A. § 18;

(7) prohibitions against discrimination based upon marital status;

(8) victim’s compensation rights under 13 V.S.A. § 5351;

(9) workers’ compensation benefits;

(10) laws relating to emergency and nonemergency medical care and treatment, hospital visitation and notification, including the Patient’s Bill of Rights under 18 V.S.A. chapter 42 and the Nursing Home Residents’ Bill of Rights under 33 V.S.A. chapter 73;

(11) advance directives under 18 V.S.A. chapter 111;

(12) family leave benefits under 21 V.S.A. chapter 5, subchapter 4A;

(13) public assistance benefits under state law;

(14) laws relating to taxes imposed by the state or a municipality;

(15) laws relating to immunity from compelled testimony and the marital communication privilege;

(16) the homestead rights of a surviving spouse under 27 V.S.A. § 105 and homestead property tax allowance under 32 V.S.A. § 6062;

(17) laws relating to loans to veterans under 8 V.S.A. § 1849;

(18) the definition of family farmer under 10 V.S.A. § 272;

(19) laws relating to the making, revoking and objecting to anatomical gifts by others under 18 V.S.A. § 5250i;

(20) state pay for military service under 20 V.S.A. § 1544;

(21) application for early voter absentee ballot under 17 V.S.A. § 2532;

(22) family landowner rights to fish and hunt under 10 V.S.A. § 4253;

(23) legal requirements for assignment of wages under 8 V.S.A. § 2235; and

(24) affirmance of relationship under 15 V.S.A. § 7.

As stated in the Vermont statue, the above list was just a “nonexclusive” list of legal rights available under Vermont law, a list that was available only to married couples before the concept of the civil union was adopted.  More importantly, these are rights that were determined by state law, not by any religious text.

This list is very similar to the kind of property, inheritance and similar rights that are unavailable to same-sex couples in states where civil unions are not recognized.

So for me, this information about civil unions begs an important question: Why were the drafters of Amendment One trying so hard to prevent civil unions?

Isn’t it enough to vote one’s belief about the institution of marriage, without having to go so far as to deny same-sex committed couples the same state law rights available to married couples? Apparently not.

Unlike my sister, there may not be many people who move with their traditional families from NC to Vermont, perhaps because of the potential culture shock.  If Amendment One passes, there may be a shock of a different kind.

People who vote for marriage between one man and one woman may be shocked when they realize that they also voted to foreclose the possibility of extending basic state law rights to same-sex committed couples.

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