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What is a Civil Union?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A civil union is one term used to describe a legally sanctioned partnership between two people, which may be roughly equivalent to marriage. In most cases, people seeking a civil union are members of homosexual couples, though under some circumstances, people who are in hetero relationships also request a civil union as opposed to marriage. When this form of partnership is established, it usually entitles both members of the couple to the rights and privileges couple share in marriages. These include things like being able to cover partners on health insurance, and make medical decisions for ailing partners.

In 1989, Denmark was the first country to establish civil union laws that would allow gay and lesbian couples to form legal and lasting partnerships. Since then, numerous other countries and some states in the US have recognized the right of homosexual couples to “marry” or to create legal partnership agreements that are treated like marriage within the state or country where they are authorized.

Some countries that have civil union laws include Norway, Sweden, Finland, France, Iceland, the United Kingdom, Israel and Mexico, and some states within the US. Vermont was the first US state to create civil unions, and some other states have followed. These include domestic partnership laws in Oregon and California.

Not all civil union laws are created equal. For instance, in Denmark, same sex couples may not adopt a child, though one partner can adopt the child of his/her spouse. Another huge difference in most civil unions is that partnerships may not be recognized outside of the state or country in which they originate. If you’re a married couple from New Jersey, your marriage and the legal rights you’re entitled to will be approximately the same whether you remain in New Jersey or travel to Texas.

People who are in civil unions or domestic partnerships don’t have this privilege. A couple that travels to a state in the US that doesn’t recognize civil unions won’t retain their status. In fact, from a federal perspective, the US federal government doesn’t treat these unions as legal or portable. This is one argument against civil unions by people who seek the ability for homosexual couples to marry instead of forming domestic partnerships. The unions are not equal to marriage because they will not always engender the same rights. In fact some people refer to these laws as apartheid of sorts, which purport to provide separate but equal privileges that truly aren’t equal.

To create greater equality, some states or countries may simply offer same sex marriages. In places like the US, many people do treat same sex marriages as an offensive thing, and work very hard to campaign against them. Proposed solutions to ban same sex marriage include things like adding a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and woman only. Needless to say, there are many who greatly support same sex marriage. They would prefer to see homosexual couples have the exact same rights and recognition as heterosexual couples.

Many gay and lesbian couples see civil union laws as a good first step. In the estimation of some people though, they do not go far enough. One reason these laws remain problematic is because in numerous countries, religious feelings may directly oppose homosexuality. However, this should not influence countries that purport to have total separation of church and state. Evidence does suggest that even in countries where church and state are defined as separate entities, religious feelings may still hold sway over decisions regarding civil unions or gay marriage.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By SauteePan — On Feb 03, 2011

Sneakers41 -I agree with you, but I think that making civil unions legal might offer the gay community some legal protections that they would not normally have in their relationships.

I think that reasons pertaining to rights of survivorship and probate would help a gay couple if they had a civil union.

Also, they would be the next of kin with respect to hospital stays and medical treatments.

While I do agree that a child is better off raised with a mother and a father, I also feel that many homosexual couples would make excellent parents as well.

There are many children in this world looking for a home and I don’t think that they would mind as long as it was a loving one. A civil union that was legal might make this opportunity more accessible to committed couples in the gay community.

By sneakers41 — On Feb 01, 2011

I think that the debate regarding civil unions vs marriage is one that will live on forever.

While I understand that homosexual couples want the same rights as heterosexual married couples, the distinction is quite different.

A marriage is between a man and a women. This is a sacred covenant that has religious and legal ramifications.

While I respect a homosexual’s couples desire to be acknowledged as a married couple and afforded the same rights, I don’t believe that there should be legal gay marriage.

Marriage is designed to be between a man and a women because this is a special bond that leads to procreation.

Both the mother and the father of the children within a marriage offer different aspects of their relationship to the children that allow kids to grow up with a stronger sense of self.

A mother and a father are like legs on a table. The mother puts two legs while the father puts the other two legs and together the table is held up because of its solid foundation.

This is why marriage should only occur between a man and a woman.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia...
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