Among social conservatives, the argument against marriage equality that reigns supreme is the notion that same-sex marriage undermines the very institution of marriage. Since Massachusetts began to recognize same-sex marriages in 2004, voters in many states have approved amendments to their state constitutions barring same-sex marriage. A number of states have also granted marriages to same-sex couples, and certainly the 2012 election ushered in a historic moment for marriage equality in the United States. The compromise position for the remainder of the states has been the recognition of civil unions and domestic partnerships, as most recently demonstrated in Colorado.
In 1995, David Boaz wrote an essay for the New York Times on the subject of civil unions and domestic partnerships called “Domestic Justice”. In that article, he noted that politicians “overlook that there are two kinds of domestic partnerships – heterosexual and same-sex. Although the most vocal opposition to domestic partnerships is aimed at gay couples, giving them [legal] benefits does not undermine marriage. Rather, it remedies the injustice that homosexuals can’t marry the people with whom they share their lives, and it creates financial incentives for stable relationships.” Boaz wonders that for social conservatives who are so opposed to affirming marriage equality, are these not the same goals that we seek in encouraging heterosexual couples to marry?
Giving domestic partnership benefits to unmarried heterosexual couples, on the other hand, does undermine marriage. They give people who can marry all the financial benefits of a legal union without demanding commitment.
If social conservatives really want to stand on a platform of family values, shouldn’t they be encouraging the creation of long lasting committed partnerships and families? By offering domestic partnership benefits to heterosexual couples who do not marry, social conservatives undermine the very institution they hold so dear and continually wave in the face of same-sex relationships. Instead, domestic partnerships and civil unions are seen as a peace offering to the gay community, relegating them to second class citizens and simultaneously undermining the institution of marriage by offering a similar set of rights to unmarried heterosexual couples.
Perhaps because domestic partnerships and civil unions are a step toward correcting a wrong, perhaps they have more bipartisan support than marriage equality, perhaps they are viewed as a compromise, or perhaps people believe the gay community will tolerate domestic partnerships and civil unions and therefore cease the push for marriage equality. But we know from history that separate but equal is all too clearly separate but never in fact equal.
On the recently passed civil union bill in Colorado, state senator Pat Steadman (D) had this to say. “Civil unions are not marriage. They are something that are separate, and distinct, and lesser, and unequal. And that really is not good enough. We passed this bill because this is the best we can do.”