Debate Continues: Civil Unions are Not Marriage by Another Name

article top

By Alan R. Spector, LCSW – On April 29, thirty-one members of the Hawaii House of Representatives voted for fairness and basic decency by passing HB 444, the Civil Unions bill.  It was the right thing to do, but it was also a compromise.  Before taking this historic step, legislators listened to hundreds of stories.  Two themes kept recurring: same-sex families are not adequately protected by our current Reciprocal Beneficiaries system, and, while recognizing the needs of our neighbors, Hawaii citizens are not ready to extend marriage equality to same-sex couples.  Civil unions are not marriage by another name, but they do provide critical rights and responsibilities necessary to protect the families of couples who cannot or choose not to be married.

Currently, the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) determines much about how same-sex couples will be treated in the United States.  In the eyes of the federal government, many rights and responsibilities are only available to married couples, and marriage is only recognized between one man and one woman.  House Bill 444 ensures that unmarried couples receive state-level protections, but they will not receive any of the more than 1,100 federal benefits and protections of marriage.


Civil unions are not an end run around marriage, but a separate status that extends the ability of unmarried couples to protect themselves and their families.  Even if DOMA were overturned by legislative action or court decision, unmarried couples in Hawaii would see no change in their status.   Unlike in other states, Hawaii’s Constitution prevents the Hawaii Supreme Court from granting same-sex couples the right to marry.  That power rests with the legislature alone.

Furthermore, opposite-sex couples who are eligible to marry may have their marriage performed in any state and have it recognized in every other state in the nation and every country in the world.  Same-sex couples, however, can marry in only five states, the District of Columbia, and eight countries.  The vast majority of states, including Hawaii, do not recognize those marriages.

Couples who are joined in a civil union have no guarantee that its protections will travel with them to other states.  If when visiting the mainland an accident lands one partner in the hospital, the other partner may face difficulty having their relationship recognized.  Everyone understands what it means to be married; for someone who is married, simply saying “Please take me to my husband or wife” is sufficient. While a civil union may not come with such convenient terminology, providing our citizens this option will equip couples who cannot marry with clear documentation explaining that they should be treated as a couple.

Finally, the biggest differences between civil unions and marriage are the social ones.  If marriages and civil unions were identical, same-sex couples wouldn’t be advocating so hard for marriage rights throughout the world.  We are routinely asked about our marital status in everyday life: at social events, at the doctor’s office, on hundreds of forms, even when serving jury duty.

Marriage is a social institution with deeply held social and religious meanings.  Civil unions are a mechanism to provide legal rights to unmarried couples; however, civil unions are devoid of the social meanings of marriage.  Civil unions are a class apart – children don’t dream of getting “unionized” when they grow up.

House Bill 444 does not put civil unions on par with marriages.  There are distinctions that will continue to be perceived by the federal government and society at large.  But there are some basic rights and protections that should be recognized in Hawaii, and they are provided by civil unions. I urge the governor to sign this bill and provide equal protection under the law for all of Hawaii’s couples and families.

Alan R. Spector is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.  He is a co-founder of Equality Hawaii and serves on its Board of Directors.