Enacted in jurisdictions worldwide, civil union laws are designed to grant the rights and privileges of marriage to same-sex couples that have been legally barred from marrying. In some jurisdictions, the rights, privileges and responsibilities conferred upon civil unions are practically identical to those granted married couples. In other jurisdictions, they’re more limited. Civil union laws, though, are generally more comprehensive than domestic partnership arrangements recognized by municipalities and employers upon signing of an affidavit, which usually gives the couple access only to a specified benefit like health insurance or public housing. In the United States, couples may enter into civil unions in a handful of states, but the federal government doesn’t recognize them.
The first civil union law was enacted in Denmark in 1989. Characterized as “registered partnerships,” they’re nearly identical to marriage except that laws that make specific references to the sex of the participants in a marriage don’t apply to registered partnerships, and they don’t modify international treaties unless all signatories agree. Since then, many European nations, as well as in Australia and North and South America, have enacted similar legislation, although not all are as comprehensive as Denmark’s. Where legislation exists at all in Africa and the Middle East regarding same-sex relationships, it outlaws them and provides severe punishments, including execution, for homosexuality.
Civil unions in the United States have been enacted only in a handful of states. States that don’t have their own civil union laws, though, generally refuse to recognize civil unions solemnized in other states or countries, despite the Constitution’s “full faith and credit” clause. A larger problem for couples in civil unions is that the federal government’s defense of marriage act (DOMA) prohibits recognition of civil unions and gay marriages. The Justice Department stated in 2011 that it would stop defending against legal challenges to the law, but also that it would continue to enforce it as required by the constitution.
Civil union laws are controversial; opponents of gay marriage sum up their opposition by stating that they’re simply gay marriage under another name. Gay rights proponents accept civil union laws because, they say, they’re generally the best they can get short of simply permitting gay marriage. Proponents make it clear, however, that they believe that anything short of gay marriage relegates them to the status of second-class citizens. The word “marriage” itself is of prime importance; describing a marriage-like relationship as anything but marriage, they insist, simply serves to suggest that there’s a difference in the nature of the relationship enjoyed by the couples.
The issue concerns far more than semantics, however. Without a civil union law, a gay couple in a marriage-like relationship wouldn’t have any of the rights of married couples. The absence of a civil union law means that there's no assumption of community property for a gay couple, even transactions like buying life insurance and naming each other as beneficiary can be complicated if no civil union law exists.
In those jurisdictions that have passed civil union laws, the justification has often been that there’s no compelling reason for the government not to extend to gay couples some or all of the rights and protections available to heterosexual couples. One of the common arguments presented by opponents of civil union laws is that everyone has the same right to marry someone of the opposite sex, implying that gay people have the same rights as heterosexuals. Those jurisdictions that enact civil union laws, though, expand that right by giving all people the right to marry whomever they choose, regardless of sex.