What’s in a Name – The Case for Civil Unions

In the poll reported by Baird Helgeson in the Star Tribune’s article “Minnesota Poll: Marriage vote splits state in two” last September 26, we learned that while same-sex marriage was a divisive issue, the idea of civil unions for same sex partners was overwhelmingly popular:

“While passions for and against a traditional definition of marriage run strong, the poll also shows that attitudes are shifting when it comes to civil unions.

The poll shows overwhelming support for civil unions that would offer gay and lesbian couples the same legal rights as marriage. Overall, 68 percent of respondents would support civil unions while only 23 percent would oppose them. The support cuts across every demographic and party line.”

That’s outstanding support and the poll also indicated it was widespread including 55% of Republicans agreeing with same-sex civil unions to only 34% against.

So why don’t we just ask for civil unions?  It could pass easily and without much hassle now that it’s been shown the issue matters to the people of Minnesota.  There are five states that have civil union laws and a few more states which had civil unions and later passed same-sex marriage.  If states like Delaware, Hawaii, and New Jersey have civil unions, why can’t we consider it?

Therefore, I decided to make a case for passing civil unions if the idea of same-sex marriage scares legislative leaders so much.  The civil union idea has such overwhelming support; even Republicans should be crossing the aisle to vote for it.  Certainly rural DFLers will have no problem with it.

If civil unions, supported by a vast majority, have the same benefits and privileges afforded “marriage” why not pass that?

Who cares what it’s called?

Richard Carlbom of Minnesotans United for All Families said in “Minnesota group expected to seek legalization of gay marriage” in Patrick Condon’s AP piece at www.twincities.com:

“I think we still have a lot of work to do to spark conversation about why marriage matters, and why we shouldn’t limit the freedom to marry. But at the end of the day, voters will reward those who grant freedom and punish those who try to limit it.”

I agree.  Wholeheartedly.  I just don’t care what they call it.  We need these benefits and privileges now.  This isn’t a new conversation.  Same-sex couples have been asking for equal treatment for their relationships since 1971.  A generation later, gay and lesbian couples are still hoping for legal recognition of their status.

Call it whatever you’d like.  Civil unions would give us the same legal treatment as marriage.  There are Minnesotans who are facing adverse situations because we worry about the word?  For example, let’s consider the story of Thomas Proehl and James Morrison.

From Abby Simons said in the Star Tribune article of May 25, 2012, “Hennepin probate case shows how marriage law stymies inheritance“:

Thomas Proehl and James Morrison assumed they would grow old together. Still, they were careful.

Together more than 25 years, the mainstays of the Twin Cities theater and arts community were fit, relatively young and happy. Cars, homes and mortgages were owned jointly. They named one another as beneficiaries on their life insurance policies. They were married in San Francisco.

But they never made a will.

When Proehl, 46, died unexpectedly of a heart attack in April 2011, his grieving partner never foresaw the legal battle be waged against a faceless opponent: A state law that prevents him from being recognized as Proehl’s surviving spouse.

You never know when death will happen.  You could get hit by a bus.  You could get a blood clot that travels to your brain and kills you.  It happens.  If Minnesota had civil unions, Proehl and Morrison could have availed themselves of that legal device and Morrison would never have faced the following, as reported from Laura Yuen of MPR on August 2, 2012, in “Court: Gay partners have right to inheritance”:

“‘I worked with everyone from the federal government to state government to try and find resolution. What I found was a great deal of sympathy and empathy, but the law just wouldn’t allow them to resolve our estate without having to go to court,’ said Morrison.”

At issue was a life insurance policy from the University of Minnesota and a bank account that was only in Proehl’s name from the sale of their California home.  As a result, Proehl’s next of kin wasn’t his partner of 25 years but his parents.  Luckily Proehl’s parents knew the money was Morrison’s.  But it didn’t matter.  Legally, Morrison and Proehl were treated as strangers, not as a couple.

In the end, as Yuen reported, a judge found Morrison had the right to inherit and said the couple “should be treated in death like any other married couple.”  Amen. “‘My hope is this will at least make a small difference, and people hopefully begin to put a face to their neighbors and families and realize why this is so important,’ [Morrison] said. After a year and a half of trying to claim the wealth he helped build with the partner he lost, Morrison says the court ruling is bittersweet.”

Probably a few thousand in attorney fees as well.  Essentially, the law as it stands has so twisted the path to justice it took Morrison 18 months to persuade a court to give him money the couple had earned together.  You see, same-sex couples intertwine their lives in the same ways straight married couples do.  One person may make more at one point.  The other may stay home and take care of their children or return to school.  Then, it can reverse.  All the while, as they live their lives in tandem, what they gather is due to both people.

Morrison was just fighting for his own property.

Fortunately there wasn’t even an adverse party in this entanglement.  Proehl’s parents believed Morrison was owed the money.  The life insurance company had to pay regardless.  They didn’t care who it went to.  The bank also was simply waiting for the court to decide who should get the money.  Neither entity cared where the money went.  They had no dog in that fight.

Can you imagine if Proehl’s parents weren’t so reasonable or if the shared asset was a business partnership?  It took thousands of dollars in legal costs and over a year and a half for Morrison to get his money without a single person saying, “Nope.  Not yours.”  So, I decided to see what other problems these laws are causing.

I asked Jonathan Burris, an attorney who specializes in GLBT legal issues what other issues the GLBT community faces.

Burris explained he has clients grappling with the issue of same-sex divorce in this state.  Because of the state Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) law, judges don’t believe they can recognize these out of state marriages or civil unions.  As a result, these people are stuck in a legal relationship in another jurisdiction without being able to get out of it here in their home state.  Burris read a list of legal issues that affect these people and they include the following:

a.         Plaintiff cannot establish another marriage or enter into another legal marriage type relationship while she remains party to this marriage.

b.         Without dissolving this marriage any property acquired by plaintiff may be considered marital property subject to equitable distribution and may be liable for debts incurred by defendant without plaintiff’s knowledge or consent.

c.         As a party to a marriage, plaintiff is responsible for support of defendant

d.         As her spouse, defendant may be able to make unwanted emergency medical decisions about plaintiff

e.         Were plaintiff to legally marry again while this marriage was not dissolved, in most jurisdictions, including Minnesota, she would be liable for the crime of bigamy punishable by substantial loss of liberty and property.

I asked him if this left Minnesotans in a kind of “legal limbo.”  Burris replied, “That’s absolutely accurate and that’s how I’ve heard it described by judges.  It’s legal limbo and it’s unfair. Our society is supposed to be about fairness.”  I’ve always believed the law was supposed to provide remedies to our problems.  With the state DOMA law on the books, people who have “tied the knot” legally in other places are now left without a way to resolve their dilemma.  It’s more than unfair.  It seems almost cruel.

I then asked Burris if he thought civil union legislation was a viable alternative now.  Burris said, “My approach for the thirty years I’ve been a gay activist on this particular issue is to have people advocate for all the different options.  You have to keep trying different recipes in the different states [to find the right solution].”

He didn’t consider civil union legislation as settling. Instead he believes this is a process.  Burris said, “Whether [civil unions] are the first step or the seventh step, it’s a start.  I could probably count six other steps that have happened in the progression toward equality of our relationships.”  As far as same-sex marriage legislation as being the only alternative, Burris thought that wasn’t a good strategy.

“I think saying we’re not going to budge an inch until we get full recognition of gay marriage is not constructive. I think we should try all of these things and in the meantime we are educating the larger culture about our problems.”

Burris is in the trenches daily working with the GLBT community on legal issues.  He’s on the front line and sees the problems that need solving today, not in ten years or whatever.  We may think only full recognition of same-sex marriage is true equality but in the meantime, our fellow citizens are struggling with these problems.

If we can get the full benefits, privileges, and responsibilities of marriage but have it called by a different name, we have won.  It is the substantive issues that matter and not what it’s called.  There are far more people willing to give us civil unions right now than those who will grant us same-sex marriage.  As we heard from DFL Governor Mark Dayton, he isn’t interested in helping us today.

He said, as quoted in the Star Tribune piece by Baird Helgeson on January 8, 2013, “Dayton faces opportunity and peril in coming year“,

“I’m not going to try to push the boulder up the mountain, but if it’s just giving it a little nudge to get it over the hump,” Dayton said, “that’s totally different.”

Maybe he’d push a little harder if the mountain wasn’t so high.

The people affected by these laws are real.  We must live our lives going forward.  Every day we grapple with life’s issues and how our relationships are treated by the state matters.  Perhaps some believe civil unions aren’t the solution, but it is certainly better than nothing.  As Burris said, we’ve traveled many steps to get where we are.  We shouldn’t stop progressing because we can’t get it all right now.



Contact Your Politicians
Governor Mark Dayton
Phone: (651) 201-3400
Email: http://mn.gov/governor/contact-us/form/ (Web Contact Form)

Senator Tom Bakk
Phone: (651) 296-8881
Email: [email protected]

Representative Paul Thissen
Phone: (651) 296-5375
Email: [email protected]

Representative Erin Murphy
Phone: (651) 296-5496
Email:  [email protected]

See also:
“The DFL’s Big Gay Farce” from Issue 457, November 29, 2012
“Three of Four Top Elected Minnesota Politicians Comment on the Marriage Debate” from Issue 458, December 13, 2012
“‘Earnest Money:’ Repeal DOMA Now” from Issue 458, December 13, 2012
“Why We Can’t Wait” an Interview with Sen. John Marty from Issue 460, January 10, 2013
Waiting for Superman” from Issue 460, January 10, 2013
“Don’t Skip Dessert” an Interview with Rep. Ryan Winkler from Issue 461, January 24, 2013
“What’s In A Name?” A Case for Civil Unions from Issue 461, January 24, 2013

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