It’s Official: Civil Unions Are Not Equal To Marriage Under Federal Law

When the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act last month, this immediately suggested ramifications for the validity and usefulness of civil unions. The idea of civil unions as a “separate but equal” status for states to offer same-sex couples was invented after DOMA was already law. Now that the federal government is officially recognizing same-sex marriages, it has officially declared that civil unions will not be recognized under the same laws.

The Office of Personnel Management released a series of memos dealing with different benefits for federal employees and explicitly made clear that only same-sex couples who are legally married can access them — not those in civil unions. Some benefits for domestic partnerships will remain intact, but same-sex couples in such partnerships or in civil unions “will remain ineligible for most Federal benefits programs.”

Four states continue to offer civil unions: Hawaii, Colorado, Illinois, and New Jersey (Rhode Island’s civil unions will end August 1 when the marriage equality law takes effect). Though Colorado would require a constitutional amendment to upgrade civil unions to marriages, the decision has a profound impact on legislative efforts in the other three states. Lawmakers in each have argued that civil unions are satisfactory and provide the same benefits as opposite-sex couples’ marriages, but under federal law that is no longer true. This is particularly true in New Jersey, where the state Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples deserve complete equality, so civil unions offered there are now a violation of the state’s constitution.