In the debate over same-sex marriage, some see civil unions as a politically expedient compromise that would offer some protections for gay and lesbian couples and their families without ruffling quite so many feathers. Others use even the possibility of civil unions as a means to justify withholding from gay and lesbian couples the true protections of marriage. Of course once they achieve that purpose, their tone about civil unions shifts a bit (pdf). When he was pushing to pass Measure 36, a constitutional amendment prohibiting the marriage of same-sex couples, Tim Nashif of the Oregon Family Council was quoted in the Bend Bulletin as saying:
Same-sex couples should seek marriage-like rights through another avenue such as civil unions. --8/20/04
Today, when Oregon is considering a civil unions bill, the Oregon Family Council is leading the fight against it and Nashif tells the Bend Bulletin:
We would be against any measure that takes all the benefits of marriage and then calls it something else. We don't think Oregonians had that in mind when they passed Measure 36. --4/15/2005
Others try to use other's legitimate criticisms of civil unions as a sign of some form of hypocrisy. We are accused of not really wanting same-sex couples to have the protections of marriage or else we would jump at civil unions. And when we applaud Connecticut for at least doing something--although not enough--to protect these families that too is questioned, as Elizabeth Marquardt asks
Help me understand how something you passionately and loudly label as “insulting” and “discriminatory” can also be – when you realize it’s all your going to get for now – “a step” towards what you want? If it is truly discriminates against you, you should never tolerate it under any circumstances, isn’t that right?
Well, one could imagine a situation where some citizens were not allowed to ride on public buses. Then, as many people point out the gross injustice of the situation and demand equal rights this is forestalled by a move to graciously let them ride certain local buses provided they sit in the back. People would be right to label such a move as "insulting" and "discriminatory" while conceding that it was at least "a step" toward gaining what others take for granted. This policy truly discriminates against them, but wouldn't there be circumstances--say the need to get to a job to provide for one's family--that would cause some to bear the insult and ride the buses while continuing to push for full equality?
One can learn a great deal from the actual alternatives people support once marriage is taken off the table. In Oregon the Governor and the Senate are supporting a civil unions bill (SB 1073 pdf) along the lines of what's been passed in Vermont and Connecticut. Republicans who control the House are pushing a reciprocal beneficiary bill (HB 3476 pdf) that would give a few important, but quite limited, protections to same-sex couples and to close relatives that cannot marry.
The RB bill itself repeatedly emphasizes that it is not for same-sex couples in particular, but rather more generally for the many couples who are prohibited from marriage. As the bill states:
(1) The Legislative Assembly finds that the people of Oregon have chosen to preserve the tradition of marriage as a unique social institution between one man and one woman. As such, marriages are subject to restrictions, such as the prohibition of a marriage under ORS 106.020 between parties who are first cousins or any nearer of kin to each other.
(2) However, the Legislative Assembly acknowledges that many individuals have significant personal, emotional and economic relationships with other individuals, but are prohibited by law from marrying each other. Examples of such individuals include two individuals who are related to each other, such as a widowed mother and her unmarried son, or two unrelated adults of the same gender.
(3) The Legislative Assembly finds that certain rights and obligations should be extended to couples composed of two adults who are legally prohibited from marrying each other.
Yes, there is nothing particularly remarkable about the situation of gays and lesbians who are being denied the protections of marriage. Many individuals are in a similar situation. For example, there are all those couples who cannot marry because they are too closely related and there's also the example of a widowed mother and her unmarried son. OK that last one was actually a particular case of the first, and there actually is no other situation of a couple that would fall under this bill other than (a) individuals who are too closely related to marry and (b) same-sex couples. Still it seemed quite important to the bill's authors to make it clear that someone else was in the "same situation" as gay and lesbian couples. It nicely frames their attempts to link gay marriage to incestuous marriage and their attempts to claim gays and lesbians are asking for "special" rights.
Supporters of the civil unions bill point out (pdf) that:
The relationships between committed, same-sex couples who want to form a family and, potentially, raise children are fundamentally different from the relationships between two cousins or two elderly aunts who may rely on one another for a limited time. Furthermore, cousins; elderly aunts; and parents and adult children already enjoy a legal relationship to one another that allows them the limited protections afforded by HB 3476. Using the law to treat same-sex couples like elderly aunts is demeaning and ignores the seriousness of these commitments and the needs of these families.
Then again, opponents of the civil union bill might make similar claims about treating homosexual relationships like heterosexual relationships. Let us put aside for the moment the question of whether a lesbian woman seeking to marry her soulmate is more like a straight woman in that situation or more like a widow moving in with her son. Instead we can use this opportunity to compare the bills and see the details of how each group, the civil union supporters and opponents, would have the state treat the gay couple differently than the close relatives and the straight couple respectively.
Let us start by looking at perhaps the most significant difference, how the relationship is dissolved. A reciprocal beneficiary is terminated either by one member simply signing and notarizing a form, or it terminates automatically when one member marries. Can you imagine if someone proposed changing the marriage laws so that you could end one marriage simply by marrying someone else? The need to go through and complete comprehensive divorce proceedings before marrying another is a vital protection of marriage, and it's not because of a child's need for his married mother and father (a person could be leaving a marriage with no children to marry the child's other parent, and yet we would still properly require divorce proceedings). This way of terminating the reciprocal beneficiary may be appropriate for the widow and her son. They knew they were going to be the primary adults in each other lives for a limited time and either one might find someone to marry at any point. If one of them finds that person he or she should be able to marry. The son doesn't need to end his relationship with his mother, but the new spouse will naturally take primacy in regards to medical decisions and issues of survivorship. But opponents of the civil union bill feel that dissolution proceedings would be inappropriate for gay and lesbian couples. They should be able to leave one another at the drop of a hat. Hardly a recipe for commitment and stability, but then it seems that's not what they want for gay and lesbian couples. I believe they are hopeful that the relationships will end and wouldn't want anything to prevent one or both of them from "seeing the light" and marrying someone of the opposite sex.
The two bills also differ significantly on obligations. Well actually there are no obligations in the reciprocal beneficiary bill. That may work as far as the widow and son are concerned. Some obligations may be inappropriate for them. For example, if the son had a minor child, the grandmother would probably care for her grandchild, but why should she be any more legally obligated for the child's educational expenses than any other grandmother? Oregon, however, recognizes that a married person is responsible for his or her family.
109.053 Responsibility of stepparent for expenses of stepchild. The expenses of the family and the education of minor children, including stepchildren, are chargeable upon the property of both husband and wife, or either of them.
It's unclear to me why this obligation should be any different if the stepparent is a woman instead of a man. I guess opponents of the civil unions bill don't want to even consider the possibility of a same-sex stepparent. For one thing, stepparent adoption is generally easier than a second-parent adoption and they don't want to do anything to make it easier for same-sex couples to parent, nor anything that would further the idea that a child could have two mothers or two fathers. The grandparent relationship and the stepaprent relationship are already described in Oregon law. Some people would do all they could to avoid reference to the relationships between same-sex couples and their children, though.
I have no problem with the reciprocal beneficiary bill for relatives who support one another. Vermont passed a very similar bill (pdf) at the same time they passed civil unions. I don't know how necessary it is. I have heard reports that nobody has signed up for reciprocal beneficiary status in Vermont in the five years they've had it. Still, I don't see how it hurts and perhaps in Oregon there will be some demand for it. The idea that such a law is appropriate for same-sex couples demonstrates a view that such relationships should be transient and same-sex couples should not be too dependent on one another for support. It shows absolutely no consideration for the children of same-sex couples and does little to promote the stability and security which would benefit those couples, their children, and the welfare of Oregon.