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A civil union is a legally recognized union similar to marriage. Many people are critical of civil unions because they say they represent separate status unequal to marriage ("marriage apartheid"). Civil Unions are often viewed by same-sex marriage supporters as "separate but equal." Some opponents of same-sex marriage are critical because they say civil unions allow same-sex marriage by using a different name.


The first civil unions in the United States were offered by the state of Vermont in 2000. The federal government does not recognize these unions, and under the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (DOMA), other U.S. states are not obliged to recognize them. By the end of 2006, Connecticut and New Jersey had also enacted civil union laws; New Hampshire followed in 2007. Furthermore, California's domestic partnership law had been expanded to the point that it became practically a civil union law, as well. The same might be said from 2007 for domestic partnership in Maine, domestic partnerships in District of Columbia, domestic partnership in Washington, and domestic partnership in Oregon.

Civil unions by state


Civil unions have been legal in Vermont since a 2000 State Supreme Court ruling requiring that the state recognize same-sex couples on par with heterosexual couples however leaving to the legislature the choice of whether to legalize same-sex marriage or some other form of relationship recognition.

The legislature, under pressure from then Governor Howard Dean, opted for civil unions over marriage as a compromise measure. The act took effect on July 1, 2000. Recently, however, a same-sex marriage bill was passed by the legislature with a veto override on April 7, 2009. The bill comes into effect on September 1, 2009. After this date, no new civil unions will be created.


In 2005, the Connecticut legislature became the first state in the United Statesmarker to legalize civil unions without a court order. The law took effect on October 1, 2008 and was signed into law by Connecticut governor Jodi Rell. Gay rights groups subsequently sued to legalize same-sex marriage, with the Connecticut Supreme Court deciding in their favor in 2008. Same-sex marriages have been performed since November 12, 2008. On October 1, 2010, all existing civil unions will be automatically transformed into marriages.

New Jersey

After a ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court, the state has legalized civil unions. The ruling similar to the ruling in Vermont has required the state grant all the benefits given to heterosexual couples to homosexual couples as well. Prior to the ruling same-sex couples enjoyed a broad-range of benefits under the states domestic partnership law. The Civil Union Act took effect on 19 February 2007. Gay rights groups however have stated their dissatisfaction with the law and have promised to continue pushing for same-sex marriage in 2007 and 2008. The Governor, Jon Corzine, has indicated he would sign a same-sex marriage bill if passed.

New Hampshire

On April 4, 2007, the New Hampshire House passed a civil unions bill, HB437, with a vote of 243 to 129. The bill is designed to imbue partners in same-sex civil unions with the same "rights, responsibilities and obligations" as heterosexual couples in marriages in the state of New Hampshire. On April 26, 2007, the New Hampshire Senate approved the civil unions bill 14-10 along political party lines. Governor Lynch signed the bill into law on May 31, 2007, making New Hampshire "the first state to embrace same-sex unions without a court order or the threat of one". The civil unions law took effect on January 1, 2008.

New Hampshire has since legalized same-sex marriage, which will come into effect on January 1, 2010. At that date, no new civil unions will be established in the state. Furthermore, all existing civil unions will be converted into marriages on January 1, 2011.

Domestic partnerships similar to civil unions


In 2009, the Nevada Legislature passed a bill to create legal recognition of same-sex unions in Nevada. This bill would create a domestic partnership registry that enables same-sex couples to enjoy the same rights as married couples. It would also allow different-sex couples to obtain the benefits of marriage without a marriage license. The bill was vetoed, as promised, by the governor, but overridden by the legislature on May 31, 2009. The law took effect 1 October 2009.


A California domestic partnership is available to same-sex couples and to certain opposite-sex couples in which at least one party is at least 62 years of age. When it became law on 22 September 1999, the domestic partnership registry entitled partners to very few privileges such as hospital visitation rights. The legislature has since expanded the scope of California domestic partnerships to afford many of the rights and responsibilities common to marriage. As such, it is now difficult to distinguish California domestic partnerships from civil unions offered in a handful of other states.


After a 2006 court ruling rejecting same-sex marriage, gay rights groups have vowed to push for same-sex marriage in the long-term and domestic partnerships in the short-term.

In March 2007, the bill passed the senate, and on April 10, 2007 the bill passed the state House of Representatives. The bill became law on April 21, 2007 when Governor Christine Gregoire signed it. The law took effect on July 22, 2007. The law conferred eleven of the rights of marriage to same–sex couples, as well as opposite–sex couples when at least one of the individuals is over the age of 62.

In 2008, the Legislature greatly expanded the scope of the law, adding over 160 of the state rights and responsibilities of marriage to domestic partnerships. The bill was passed on March 4, 2008, signed by Governor Gregoire on March 12, 2008, and took effect on June 12, 2008.

In 2009, the Legislature fully expanded the scope of the law in a bill bringing domestic partnerships equal under state law to marriages in the state. The bill passed the legislature on April 15, 2009 and is awaiting Governor Gregoire's signature expected to occur on May 18, 2009. and

On May 4, 2009 Referendum 71 was filed in the Washington Secretary of State's Office to attempt to prevent the 2009 Domestic Partnership Legislation from becoming Law. Opponents have until July 25, 2009 to gather 120,577 signatures to force a November 2009 ballot vote.


In 2004, voters approved a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Despite this defeat, gay rights groups have continued to push for civil unions in the state legislature. In trying to garner support for a civil unions bill, it was changed to a domestic partnership registry, although it still gave virtually all of the state level benefits as a marriage or civil union does.In April 2007 the Oregon House passed the domestic partnership bill.

The bill passed the House in April 2007 and the House on May 2. It was signed by the Governor on May 9. The bill made Oregon the 9th state in the United States to give some level of recognition to same-sex couples. Although the law was to take effect on 1 January 2008, it was delayed by court action. It took effect on 4 February 2008.

District of Columbia

The Washington, DC domestic partnership law took effect on 11 June 1992, but was not funded by Congress until 2002. Both heterosexual and homosexual couples may register, and while benefits have increase over time, the benefits are specifically enumerated and are as extensive as those of marriage. There has been discussion about legalizing same sex marriage; however, Congress could prevent such a measure.


In April, 2004 the legislature passed a domestic partnership bill. The law, which provides same-sex individuals with inheritance rights over their partners' property and guardianship over their deceased partner, went into effect on July 30, 2004.

Other types of recognition


Since 1997, the U.S. state of Hawaiimarker has offered reciprocal beneficiary registration for any adults who are prohibited by state law from marrying, including both same-sex and different-sex couples. Reciprocal beneficiaries have access to a limited number of rights and benefits on the state level, including inheritance rights, workers compensation, the right to sue for wrongful death, health insurance and pension benefits for state employees, hospital visitation, and healthcare decisionmaking. Hawaii's RBR status also offers partners the option to jointly own property as "Tenants by the Entirety."


Since midnight July 1, 2009 unmarried couples have been able to enter a designated beneficiary agreement - similar to reciprocal beneficiary relationships in Hawaii - which will grant them limited rights, including making funeral arrangements for each other, receiving death benefits, and inheriting property without a will. The law, House Bill 1260, will be valid for estate planning, property purchases, medical decisions and certain benefits such as life-insurance and retirement-plan disbursements and was signed by Governor Bill Ritter on April 9, 2009.


The Maryland General Assembly passed a domestic partnership law in 2008. It was signed into law by Governor Martin O'Malley on May 22, and came into effect on July 1, 2008. It provides domestic partners with 11 rights of marriage, including hospital visitation and the making of funeral arrangements for each other. The law does not establish a domestic partnership registry, so couples may be required by officials or facilities to prove that their partnership exists by providing a sworn affidavit along with two other documents enumerated in the law, such as evidence of a joint mortgage, checking account, or insurance coverage, among others.

Cities or Counties with domestic partnerships or other types of recognition

County Map
For a full list of cities and counties see the following page: Cities and counties in the United States offering a domestic partnership registry

See also


  3. HOUSE BILL 73 AN ACT affirming religious freedom protections with regard to marriage and prohibiting the establishment of civil unions on or after January 1, 2010.
  7. EqualityMaine - Maine's Domestic Partner Law

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