Marriage-Lite Struggles On

John Culhane examines the state of the civil union:

As I explained here in Slate last year, for the pioneering hetero couples who chose the civil union, marriage wasn’t a choice that appealed to them. Their decisions to elect the civil union over marriage were fueled by a mix of reasons: the association of marriage Supreme Court Hears Arguments On California's Prop 8 And Defense Of Marriage Actwith religion; its dismal history relating to gender roles and rules; the view that the law didn’t do enough to recognize other kinds of family forms; and solidarity with same-sex couples who couldn’t marry. These couples didn’t want to marry then, and many of them still won’t want to, even though the gays can now do so.

And the early word is that they won’t have to. The new Illinois law allows those in civil unions to convert them to marriages, at no cost, but doesn’t require them to do so—they can hang onto their civil unions. But Illinois didn’t stop there: Going forward, both same- and opposite-sex couples will continue to be able to choose between marriage and civil union. This is a first, but Illinois won’t be alone for long. The marriage-equality bill in Hawaii is even more interesting, because the legislature has determined to retain not only civil unions, but also an earlier legal status, the reciprocal beneficiary designation, that was created out of the compromise that led to banning same-sex marriages in the mid-1990s. In Hawaii, couples will soon have three options: marriage, civil union, and reciprocal beneficiary (a status that confers certain limited rights and is much easier to exit than the other two).

I think this is a mistake.

It’s a mistake for the gay civil rights movement because it attaches our desire for civic inclusion with weaker quasi-marital institutions that will weaken the bonds between two people, and lower the amount of responsibility they need to take for each other. These two issues are unconnected. We long had one institution for spouses, marriage, an institution that brings families together, and integrates rather than balkanizes, and legally protects a commitment for life. One small segment of society was excluded from it as a mark of stigmatization and inferiority. Mercifully, that has ended in many states – but obviously not enough.

It is a logically distinct and different argument that marriage itself is so burdensome a mutual responsibility – or so freighted with ideological baggage – that we should offer a variety of different options for couples. That will weaken marriage, both gay and straight. We’ll see how many straight and gay couples choose a civil union over civil marriage … and this may turn out to be a small phenomenon. Or it could turn into France, where civil unions may even supplant civil marriages in the near future.

Yes, this makes me a moderate social conservative. But I always have been one on this subject, as well as a classical liberal believer in civil equality.

(Photo: Getty Images.)