With the new civil union bill taking effect in New Hampshire as of January 1st, now seems like a good time to review same-sex marriage-ish laws like civil unions, domestic partnerships, and straight up same-sex marriage in the United States.
New Hampshire (2008) is the fourth state to approve civil unions along with Vermont (2000), Connecticut (2005), and New Jersey (2007). So what is a civil union? Essentially a civil union is a more conservative-friendly term for state-approved gay marriage. Civil unions provide same-sex couples with most of the same rights as other-sex couples. Of course these include the approximately 400 rights that the state provides but not the more than 1,000 provided by the federal government. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government legally denies these rights to same-sex couples even if their civil union, domestic partnership, or same-sex marriage is recognized in their state. These 1,138 federal rights include hospital or prison visitation, the right to make medical decisions on behalf of partner, bereavement leave, access to health insurance and pension, social security survivor benefits, tax breaks, and veterans benefits. A complete description of all of the federal rights of marriage can be found here.
So what is a domestic partnership? A domestic partnership is a form of state recognized same-sex coupling that generally offers less rights than civil unions. However, in California and Oregon domestic partnerships offer the same rights as civil unions. This does not mean that there isn’t a catch. In California (2000/2005) for example, domestic partnerships are only recognized if one member of the couple is at least 62-years-old. Arbitrary much? And of course Oregon passed a domestic partnership bill last year that should have taken effect on January 1st, but court challenges are delaying the process. The states that offer domestic partnerships with less rights than civil unions are Maine (2004), Washington (2007), the District of Columbia (1992/2002), and in New Jersey (2004) for those, again, 62 and up.
My current state of residence, Massachusetts, is the only one that allows same-sex marriage as of 2004. Fun Fact: Iowa legalized same-sex marriage on August 31, 2007 but is awaiting further court review before allowing the law to take effect. Same-sex marriage is different than civil unions or domestic partnerships because it offers exactly the same state rights to same-sex couples. New Mexico and Rhode Island residents who are married in Massachusetts are recognized as married in their home state.
In summary, civil unions and domestic partnerships provide a different set of rights in each state. They tend to offer less rights to same-sex couples, especially in the case of domestic partnerships. Same-sex marriage is the only 100% equal marriage in the eyes of the state but, like civil union and domestic partnership, is not recognized by the federal government. Please feel free to provide any further information, corrections, or opinions about civil unions, domestic partnerships, or same-sex marriage in the comments.