Thursday, August 02, 2012

Why civil unions aren’t enough

One of the tactics opponents of marriage equality use here in New Zealand is to suggest that since New Zealand already has civil unions, that’s good enough for same-gender couples. They ask, isn’t that a way for government to legally recognise the commitment, rights and responsibilities of same-gender couples? Why does it have to be marriage? It’s because marriage matters.

Marriage equality means that loving same-gender couples can legally commit to each other through marriage in the same way that opposite-gender couples can. It means government legally recognising that commitment, along with the rights and responsibilities involved, and in particular that every level of government and society understands that word and what’s involved. Civil unions don’t have that in full, or sometimes at all.

The biggest difference between marriage and civil unions in New Zealand is that a married couple can adopt children, while a couple in a civil union cannot. Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t about what’s sometimes called “stranger adoption,” that is, where a couple adopts a child to whom neither partner is related. Instead, this is mainly about modern blended families in which the child is related to one or both parents, but perhaps legally to neither or only one. So, loving families in which the partners are in a civil union could be torn apart if the “legal” parent dies or becomes incapacitated. This makes civil union families potentially at great risk, something that could be taken care of it they were married.

Of course the other big difference between the two is that both same-gender and opposite-gender couples can enter into a civil union, but only opposite gender couples can marry. So, only opposite-gender couples can achieve full legal security for their families, but same-gender couples cannot. That makes no sense.

Countries around the world recognise marriage for immigration purposes, but many, like the United States, don’t recognise anything but marriage. Couples in a civil union could be considered—legally—strangers if they chose to emigrate. Current US law forbids recognising same-gender marriages for any federal purpose, but that law will soon be struck down or repealed. Once it is, it’s probable that only married same-gender couples will be considered for immigration by the US government. The same will likely be true for other countries. So, while opposite-gender couples in a civil union can always marry in order to change their immigration status, same-gender couples cannot.

We often hear about how bizarre this is, the idea that the government would deliberately allow obvious and blatant discrimination against some of its own citizens. The argument goes, gay people work hard and pay their taxes like everyone else, so why shouldn’t they be treated equally? Of course they should be, but the issue here isn’t only human rights and equality, it’s that same-gender couples and their families are put at real risk and suffer real harm simply because the government won’t allow them to marry.

Another thing our opponents say is that enacting marriage equality is some sort of insult to those in a civil union. How, exactly? Opposite-gender couples can convert their civil unions into a marriage if they wish; only same-gender couples cannot. When marriage equality is enacted, all couples will have the choice of how their relationship will be treated—de facto, civil union or marriage. That means that all loving couples will be able to choose the recognition that works best for their families. How is that an insult to those in a civil union?

Opponents also sometimes trot out some gay person who raises an objection to marriage, as if that says anything about, well, anything. There are plenty of heterosexuals who object to marriage, too! For example, I’ve seen heterosexual leftists going on and on about how marriage is bad according to their political ideology. Why is it a surprise that some gay people also reject marriage? That’s no reason why they shouldn’t have the option of marriage. After all, no one is suggesting that heterosexuals shouldn’t be allowed to marry because some of them reject marriage!

So, when marriage equality is enacted, all that will happen is that loving same-gender couples will be able to make the same legal and public commitment to each other as opposite-gender couples already can, and those families will no longer be artificially put at risk of real harm. Couples will be able to choose the recognition of their commitment to each other that works best for their families and values, and those churches that strongly object to marriage equality can freely ignore it within their churches.

Marriage equality is really about all people being treated with respect by their government so their families can get on with their lives. And that is enough.

Previously: Marriage is not being 'redefined'

Next up: There is no ‘slippery slope’

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