Tuesday, October 05, 2004

READER RESPONSE -- More on Civil Unions

Posted by Craig Westover | 2:08 PM |  

Dave Downing of downingworld.com writes --

It occurred to me that in the debate about who qualifies for the benefits of marriage, we keep leaving something out -- the obligations of marriage. It seems that traditionally, benefits of marriage were granted in exchange for the obligation of the couple and their offspring to operate as a self-sustaining family unit. Society gave incentives to be married, so that women and children didn't end up unsupported.

But if we open this up to any sort of "civil union" -- say two same-gender college roommates who enter into a civil union so one can piggyback on the other's health insurance -- what benefit does society get in exchange for granting the civil union? Also, in your opinion, should it be easy to dissolve a civil union? When people keep talking about marriage or civil union as all about "benefits," it's easy to see how the system would be abused for convenience and financial benefits (the college oommates).

Good questions.

First, the benefit definition of marriage “so that women and children didn’t end up unsupported” is a little specific. That’s certainly part of the reason, but it fits into the broader benefit of societal stability. That includes things like child support, but also includes civil actions like passing property in the event of death, health care decisions and the like.

So, take gay marriage. If it is a benefit to society to promote the stability of opposite sex unions, then why is it not in the interest of society to promote stability of same-sex unions? The usual answer is “children,” but in today’s world of second marriages, artificial insemination and adoption, gay couples can with ease also be a child-rearing family. Shouldn’t those children benefit from the stability society seeks with opposite-sex unions?

Let’s take it to the next step. A personal example. My mother is a widow and her older sister, my aunt, never married. My mother was my aunt’s sole beneficiary when she died. However, the state does not recognize sisters to the same degree they recognize spouses or children as legal heirs. My mother had to go through a lot of legal hassle just to clear up a relatively small estate that a spouse would not have had to do. Why couldn’t my mother and aunt have formed a civil union that granted property rights, health decisions and the like to each other?

Now let’s take your example of college roommates. The thing about civil unions is that the legislature can define them as loosely or as stringently as it likes -- provided requirements are neutral; that is, anyone willing to make the effort can comply. Thus, if there is no real benefit to college roommates forming a civil union, the legislature can put strict requirements on a union -- requirements that neither specifically exclude college roommates, nor create incentives for them to form a union and may even include disincentives.

For example, in order to have a civil union the “couple” must either reside at the same permanent address or file a joint Minnesota income tax statement. Or both parties must be residents and eligible to vote in Minnesota. If either person has a driver’s license, it must be a Minnesota driver’s license. The point is, while these types of requirements are not ones college roommates would likely fulfill (although they could), a traditional “family” would normally meet them. So could have my mother and aunt.

Contrast that with the ease of a Las Vegas wedding or a “green card” marriage.

Regarding dissolving civil unions, it would be easier in the sense that a basic set of dissolution rules should be incorporated into the standard civil union definition -- such as how joint property is determined, the process for determining custody of dependents and the like. Here again is the opportunity to restrict the “college roommate” type relationship. If entering into a civil union immediately makes all property joint property, the roommate with the Corvette is going to have second thoughts about a civil union with the ‘92 Honda Civic driver.

Obviously, the devil is in the details, but the point is that civil unions are a much fairer and more workable system than ursurpating the religious concept of “marriage” as a means to manage society. “Marriage” worked for many years, but society caught up to it, and new notions of “family” have passed it.

By the way, being a traditionalist, I believe that if “marriage” in the sense I understand it is to be saved, it must return to its religious roots. Civil unions force marriage back into a church and religious setting, where it belongs as a sacramental commitment between two people and a religious community. Civil unions strengthen marriage, not weaken it.

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