A civil union is one of several terms for a civil status similar to marriage, typically created for the purposes of allowing homosexual couples access to the benefits enjoyed by married heterosexuals (see also same-sex marriage); it can also be used by couples of differing sexes who do not prefer to enter into the legal institution of marriage but who would rather be in a union more similar to a common-law marriage.
Many different types of civil unions exist. Some are identical to marriage in nearly every respect except name; some have many but not all of the rights accorded to married couples (sometimes called Registered Partnerships); some are simple registries (also called domestic partnerships.)
Some jurisdictions that have passed civil unions include Vermont in the United States (2000); Quebec and Nova Scotia in Canada; and France, Denmark (1989), Norway (1993), Sweden (1994), Iceland (1996), Finland (2000), Germany (2001), Portugal (2001), the Swiss canton of Zürich (2002), the Argentine city of Buenos Aires (2003), and New Zealand and the Australian state of Tasmania (2004).
In 2001, the Netherlands gave same-sex marriage equal status with opposite-sex marriage, in addition to its 1998 "registered partnership" law (civil union) for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Belgium did likewise in 2003, as did the provinces of Ontario, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Quebec, Canada, following court rulings in 2003 and 2004. A bill has been drafted to extend that right throughout Canada. Gay marriage is also legal in the US state of Massachusetts. See same-sex marriage.
A much larger number of jurisdictions, largely individual municipalities and counties, have passed rules to register same-sex unions; for information on this, see domestic partnership.
In July 2004, the American state of New Jersey enacted a law that is virtually the same as a typical civil union, giving same-sex couples most of the rights associated with marriage. Although the state government uses the term domestic partnership to denote these new unions, the law in fact gives many more rights than those given by the domestic partnerships of most other juristictions and so the New Jersey situation is more often related to civil unions. In November 2004 the United Kingdom passed a similar law using the terminology civil partnership.
Although the definition of marriage in Canada is a federal law, marriage and other vital statistics are administered by the provinces. So far, two provinces have decided to create a separate form to recognize same-sex partners: Quebec and Nova Scotia.
See Canadian Department of Justice: Marriage and Legal Recognition of Same-sex Unions, A Discussion Paper (November 2002)
The M. v. H. decision of the Supreme Court of Canada extended common-law marriage to include same-sex couples.
The provinces of Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan, as well as Yukon territory, currently extend marriage licenses to same-sex couples, pursuant to superior court rulings; a bill to extend that right throughout Canada will be introduced in January 2005. See Same-sex marriage in Canada.
Main article: Civil unions in Quebec
Pursuant to a range of activism and to the M. v. H. decision, the province of Quebec's legislature voted unanimously to create a status of civil union, available to both opposite-sex and same-sex couples and largely having the same rights as marriage, by modifying the Civil Code of Quebec. The law was enacted on June 24, 2002. See: Civil Code of Quebec [CCQ] (Book 2: 'The Family', Title One.1, arts. 521.1 to 521.19).
On June 4, 2001, Nova Scotia became the first province in Canada to register same-sex relationships. The registration, which costs $Cdn15, is for a "domestic partnership" at the Office of Vital Statistics. However, unlike other "domestic partnerships" at the civic level, this has a force similar to that of marriage because it is registered with the same authority that registers marriages, and because it gives the couple access to some 20 of the most important matrimonial laws.
External link: Information from Religious Tolerance.org (scroll down)
Civil unions were introduced in Denmark by law of June 7th, 1989, the world's first such law. It has the form of a registered partnership (Danish: "registreret partnerskab"), but has almost all the same qualities as marriage. All legal and fiscal rights and obligations are as for a heterosexual marriage, with four exceptions:
- registered partners cannot adopt, with the exception that one party can adopt the biological children of the other
- registered partners cannot have joint custody of a child, except by adoption
- laws making explicit reference to the sexes of a married couple don't apply to registered partnerships
- regulations by international treaties do not apply unless all signatories agree.
Registered partnership is by civil ceremony only. The Danish state church has yet to decide how to handle the issue, but the general attitude of the church seems positive but hesitant. Some priests perform blessings of gay couples, and this is accepted by the church, which states that the church blesses people, not institutions.
Divorce for registered partners follow the same rules as ordinary divorces.
Only citizens of Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Iceland can enter a registered partnership in Denmark. This list is adjusted whenever a new country introduces gay marriage. This rule excludes foreigners from entering gay marriages that won't be legally valid in their home country.
As of January 1st, 2002 there were more than 2000 registered partnerships in Denmark, of which 220 had children.
The French law providing benefits to same-sex couples also applies to opposite-sex couples who choose this form of partnership over marriage. Known as a Pacte Civil de Solidarité (PACS), it is more easily dissolved than the divorce process applying to marriage. Tax and immigration benefits accrue only after the contract has been in effect for three years. The partners are required to have a common address, making it difficult for foreigners to use this law as a means to a residence permit, and difficult for French citizens to gain the right to live with a foreign partner.
See also: PACS
A law about registered partnerships between members of the same sex took effect on August 1, 2001. It was challenged before the supreme court, because the German constitution contains the sentence "marriage and family enjoy the special protection of the state". The supreme court ruled July 17, 2002 that the new law does not lower the protection of marriage and family and let the law stand.
Couples entering registered partnerships are required to support each other financially. A non-working partner receives the same coverage from the other partner's health insurance as would apply to a marital spouse. Registered partners also enjoy the same rights as married couples when it comes to inheritance law (but not inheritance taxes) and the right to refuse testimony in court.
Germans can enter registered partnerships with non-Germans who then gain the right to live and work in Germany. They may become German citizens after three years of residency and two years after the partnership took effect. Non-Germans can also enter registered partnerships with other foreigners, who then also receive residence and work permits, under certain conditions, provided at least one of the partners already legally resides in Germany.
The laws concerning registered partnerships do not affect the areas of adoption or pensions. In tax law, as well as in the salaries of civil servants, marriages still have a significant advantage over registered partnerships, since these laws required the approval of the Bundesrat to be changed. The majority parties in the Bundestag do not have the necessary votes in the Bundesrat to pass legislation in these areas. Supporters of registered partnerships hope that the supreme court will remove this disparity before long.
See also: Registered Partnership, Civil unions in Germany or the German language article Lebenspartnerschaft
Main article: Civil union in New Zealand
On 9 December 2004 the New Zealand Parliament passed the Civil Union Bill, establishing civil unions for same-sex and de facto couples. The unions will come into effect in April 2005.
On September 22, 2002, voters in the canton of Zürich voted to extend a number of marriage rights to same-sex partners, including tax, inheritance, and social security benefits. Partners must both live in the canton and formally commit themselves six months in advance to running a household and supporting and aiding one another.
External link: PlanetOut News story
In 2003, the government announced plans to introduce 'civil unions' which would allow couples the same rights as a marriage, and on March 30, 2004 the Civil Partnership Bill was introduced. It was passed by the House of Lords, its final legislative hurdle, on November 17, 2004, and received Royal Assent on November 18. The unions are only be available to same-sex couples. In order to counter claims that this is instituting same-sex marriage, government spokespersons have emphasised that civil partnership is quite separate from marriage. In practice the main differences (apart from terminology) are as follows:
- a civil partnership becomes legal on the signing of a register, rather than on the speaking of certain words as with marriage
- it will not be possible to annul a civil partnership on the grounds of non-consummation
adultery will not constitute grounds for the equivalent of divorce.
The controversial civil unions law enacted in Vermont in 2000 was passed as a response to the Vermont Supreme Court ruling in Baker v. Vermont requiring that the state grant same-sex couples the same rights and privileges accorded to married couples under the law. There are still many people who are strongly opposed to the idea of same-sex marriage, so the legislature came up with the idea of civil unions as a compromise between groups seeking equal rights for homosexuals, and groups objecting to gay marriage.
A Vermont civil union is nearly identical to a legal marriage, as far as the rights and responsibilities for which state law, not federal law, is responsible are concerned. It grants partners next-of-kin rights and other protections that heterosexual married couples also receive. However, despite the "full faith and credit" clause of the United States Constitution, civil unions are generally not recognized outside of the state of Vermont in the absence of specific legislation. Opponents of the law have supported the Defense of Marriage Act and the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment in order to prevent obligatory recognition of same-sex couple in other jurisdictions. This means that many of the advantages of marriage, which fall in the federal jurisdiction (joint federal income tax returns, visas and work permits for the foreign partner of a U.S. citizen, etc), are not extended to the partners of a Vermont civil union. As far as voluntary recognition of the civil union in other jurisdictions is concerned, New York City's Domestic Partnership Law, passed in 2002, recognizes civil unions formalized in other jurisdictions. Germany's international civil law (EGBGB) also accords to Vermont civil unions the same benefits and responsibilities that apply in Vermont, as long as they do not exceed the standard accorded by German law to a German civil union.
The civil union law is hailed by some as a fair compromise to the issues before the legislature. Others are angry that the legislature did not go so far as to legalize marriage between homosexual couples, and still others are angry that the legislature granted homosexual couples something so similar to marriage. It has been a politically charged issue within the state of Vermont, and throughout the United States.
Civil unions can be dissolved in Vermont family court in exactly the same manner as divorce of married couples: as of July 2002, four such unions had been so dissolved. But while there is no residency requirement to contract a civil union, there is a six month residency requirement to dissolve one. The attempt of Glen Rosengarten to obtain, in his home state of Connecticut, a formal dissolution of his Vermont civil union with Peter Downes, then a resident of New York City, was rejected by the court of appeals on the basis of lack of jurisdiction. Though New York City recognizes civil unions contracted in other jurisdictions, it is not clear if dissolutions of civil unions would be similarly recognized. This was the first case of a non-Vermont resident seeking a dissolution of a civil union, and it seems reasonable to anticipate difficulty in other such cases.
Many legal experts maintain that the Federal Marriage Amendment, in the version supported by George W. Bush which failed to pass the U.S. Senate on July 14, 2004, would have outlawed civil unions everywhere in the U.S., even within Vermont. (For a discussion, see the FMA page.)
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