Marriage Matters: Why Civil Unions Will Never Come Close to Marriage


As of 2004, DOMA applied to least 1,138 parts of federal law (full list: pertaining to marriage. Without DOMA, married same-sex couples would immediately have protections in the law that couples in civil unions would lack. “Civil union” is never once mentioned in federal code.

Couples in civil union states like New Jersey would be separated from some of their closest neighbors in New York, Connecticut and Maryland by more than geography. Here’s what people in civil unions would wake up to the next morning, compared to people in states like Iowa and Washington where same-sex couples can marry.

Sub-Prime Policies on Student Loans

Straight married couples can consolidate their federal student loans. DOMA, however, prohibits same-sex married couples from combining that debt. If DOMA were overturned, gay and lesbian married couples could consolidate their loans, but couples in civil unions could not.

Inapplicable Financial Aid Applications

Under DOMA, same-sex married couples are forced to fill out the federal financial aid application as if they were divorced – a misrepresentation that further complicates a notoriously confusing process. If DOMA were overturned, same-sex married couples would be able to complete their forms honestly, as a family. Couples in civil unions could not.

Taxation with Discrimination

Edie Windsor

Edie Windsor, who challenged DOMA all the way to the Supreme Court, was forced to pay over $300,000 in taxes for the estate of her wife, Thea Spyer. A straight widow or widower would have paid nothing. With the repeal of DOMA, widowed spouses in states with fair marriage laws would not have to pay taxes on the estate of a husband or wife of the same sex. Couples in New Jersey with civil unions would still have to pay estate taxes for a spouse.

DOMA prevents same-sex married couples from filing federal tax returns jointly. If DOMA were overturned, couples in states with same-sex marriages would immediately enjoy the federal benefits of filing jointly, while couples in civil unions would not.

Lost in Immigration

World Marriage Equality Map

If a U.S. citizen marries someone from another country, that spouse can live here legally – as long as the couple is straight. Under DOMA, same-sex couples have no such protection.

If DOMA were overturned, married same-sex couples would be entitled to the same immigration protections as married opposite-sex couples. However, couples in civil unions would not.

Although the Obama Justice Department has halted deportation proceedings for couples in civil unions before, the fates of these couples still rest on the whims of the government on a case-by-case basis rather than the bedrock of the law.

Ailing Health Care

Nothing affects us more than our health. In that area, gay and lesbian couples are at a grave disadvantage.

While DOMA exists, the Family and Medical Leave Act applies only to straight couples. Under DOMA, gay and lesbian federal employees cannot take time off from work to care for an ill spouse. Individual states can make exceptions to allow same-sex couples to care for their spouses, but federal law does not require it. If DOMA were overturned, all same-sex married couples would be able to care for a seriously ill husband or wife without fear of losing their jobs, as any other husband or wife could. Federal employees in civil unions would not be entitled to the same rights to care for their loved ones even if DOMA were overturned.

Gay and lesbian federal employees cannot add their spouses to their health insurance. If DOMA were overturned, these employees could add their spouses to their insurance; employees in civil unions could not.

The regulations pertaining to Medicaid and Medicare can be particularly disastrous for elderly LGBT couples, who have to apply individually for benefits as if they were single. Medicaid has “spousal impoverishment protections” to protect opposite-sex couples from losing all of their assets when one of them requires long-term care. Same-sex couples enjoy no such protections and risk losing everything, including the right to see each other. Were DOMA overturned, married couples would be entitled to these protections for older couples, but couples in civil unions would not.

Second-Class Service Members

The repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell allowed gay and lesbian service members to come out of the closet without fear of losing their jobs. But it would take the overturning of DOMA to mitigate the unequal treatment of gay and lesbian couples in the military.

Witt-Johnson Dance

The Department of Defense has tried to extend as many benefits as it can to same-sex military spouses without violating DOMA. Same-sex military couples can share more superficial privileges such as commissary access, but lack truly meaningful protections provided to heterosexual military spouses and their children such as medical and dental care, housing allowances, and death benefits.

When a service member dies in combat, DOMA dictates that their personal effects go to blood relatives rather than a same-sex spouse. If DOMA were overturned, married same-sex spouses would be treated the same way as straight married couples. Service members and spouses could occupy on-based housing together. They could be buried side by side on military plots. But military couples in New Jersey united by civil unions would not be entitled to that same status.

Map by Hentzer at En.Wikipedia. Witt/Johnson photo by Nate Gowdy.

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