Rhode Island joins four other states — Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey and Delaware — that have legalized civil unions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Several other states recognize domestic partnerships, while six have legalized same-sex marriage, as has the District of Columbia[.]
In terms of terminology, civil unions are marriage in all but name, and domestic partnerships are "marriage minus." But, it isn't clear yet whether all three will be the same in the eyes of the federal government, only marriage will count as marriage, or both marriage and civil unions will count as marriage in the eyes of the federal government. In theory, the federal government could even treat civil unions and/or domestic partnerships as marriages for some federal law purposes, but not others.
Still, we have reached a tipping point on gay rights in the United States.
The only other New England state without either gay marriage or civil unions is Maine (a year and a half ago Maine voters narrowly overturned the state's legislatively adopted marriage equality law, 53-47), but it apparently still has some form of domestic partnership law. New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and District of Columbia have gay marriage. Pennsylvania and Maryland are the holdouts in the Northeast that currently lack gay marriage, civil unions or legally recognized domestic partnerships, and none of the states in the region that lack gay marriage or civil unions appears to have constitutional amendments prohibiting state legislatures from allowing gay marriage.
Rhode Island's move solidifies the Northeast block's stance that same sex couples have the same legal rights under state law as married couples, putting pressure on Maine, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, which have considered but not yet adopted such legislation (with the bills failing by narrow margins), to follow the examples set by their regional neighbors with whom they have strong ties and a history of interstate cooperation on other issues like automotive emissions and bottle recycling.
In the last tally that I saw, there were civil unions in Hawaii and domestic partnership legislation on the book in Washington State, Oregon, California and Nevada, forming a regional block of greater Pacific area states with gay friendly legislation.
California had had judicially established gay marriage until voters passed Proposition 8, but a trial court has ruled that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, a challenge claiming that the trial court judge who ruled on the Proposition 8 case should have recused himself has been rebuffed, and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has essentially held that the only person who purported to appeal the trial court ruling lacked standing to appeal unless the California Supreme Court states in a legal question certified to it that the proponents of a ballot initiative always have standing to defendant constitutional challenges to that ballot initiative (which it seems unlikely to do when it rules on this issue which has been briefed and it is considering).
To make a long story short, it isn't at all beyond the realm of possibility that California will have true gay marriage (in addition to New York, which took this step earlier this year) by year end. Resisting a trend that already includes two of the nation's largest states and two whole regions of the country is not easy for its opponents, particularly without national government support with the Obama administration has denied them.
In the rest of the country, Illinois (which has civil unions) and Iowa (which has gay marriage) are an island of tolerance in an otherwise legally hostile sea, in the case of Iowa, as a result of a judicial decision that caused several Iowa Supreme Court judges who supported the ruling to lose retention elections.
The repeal date for the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy" a half-measure that kept a ban on gays in the military in force, is now set in stone by legislation.
Each legislative and court victory, shifts overall public opinion in favor of the change, because there is a natural tendency to accept the legal status quo as legitimate.
For activists in Rhode Island, winning "civil union" status rather than "marriage" status is more than a symbolic defeat, because the provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that pertains to federal law recognition of state law marriages is crumbling. Court rulings holding that this part of DOMA is unconstitutional are staking up; the administration has changed its litigation strategy from one of vigorous defense of the constitutionality of this part of DOMA to half-hearted enforcement of the law until there is an authoritative judicial decision to the contrary despite publicly expressed doubt concerning its constitutionality, and federal administrative reluctance to enforce penalties that deportation of a same sex spouse. There is a strong likelihood, although it is not completely certain, that the federal law part of DOMA will be judicially ruled to be void and no longer applied by the federal government before the 2012 election.
But, even if the federal part of DOMA is held unconstitutional, it isn't obvious that a couple with a civil union or state recognized domestic partnership would be entitled to the same treatment under federal law as a married couple.
Even assuming that the federal government part of DOMA meets its demise for want to support from the Obama Administration and as a result of judicial rulings to that effect, the provision of DOMA the provides that states need not give full faith and credit to a gay marriage in a sister state is not yet the subject of a serious legal challenge, and a great many states have no form of gay marriage, civil union, or domestic partnership of their own.
Interstate recognition of gay marriages, civil unions and domestic partnerships is ill defined at the moment, even among states that have them. Wyoming is a recent example of a state that does not have its own gay marriage law, but was willing to take jurisdiction over a divorce for a same sex couple married elsewhere. The court found that a ban on marrying same sex couples did not imply a ban on divorcing them.
Many constitutionally prohibit gay marriage, and almost all that don't do so in their constitutions, prohibit it by statute. But, state constitutions, unlike the federal constitution, tend to be quite easy to amend as public opinion shifts.
Isolated rulings, however, particularly in the adoption and child custody area in states like Florida, have held that discrimination against same sex couples even if they are not married, lacks a rational basis and is unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment equal protection clause.
Indeed, the law related to children, in general, and of parental rights and responsibilities of married couples vis-a-vis non-married couples has been so completely harmonized in the context of opposite sex unmarried couples, that paternal marriage status is almost irrelevant to these issues now even in states that have strongly resisted recognition of gay rights. There are some sometimes subtle differences involved in establishing paternity, but otherwise, the formal barriers to same sex couples in relation to children have been retreating for some time.
The U.S. Supreme Court's Lawrence case ended criminal prosecutions for consensual, non-commercial sexual relationship between adults in same sex couples, and this also probably provides a comparable privilege for sexual relationships of this type between all unmarried adults who are not in a position of trust with regard to each other or incestuous. Very few states continue to have civil or criminal sanctions for adultery. Meanwhile, martial exclusions for non-statutory rape have increasingly been stripped from the law books.
From a legal perspective, marriage no longer has almost any relevance to the legal regulation of parenting or sexual activity with which it was traditionally associated. At this point, legal marriage is almost exclusively an economic relationship pertinent to default private law rules concerning property, and personal care taking, mandatory private law rules concerning financial support, and is a device that helps to structure economic obligations for taxes and economic entitlements to government benefits.
For many purposes, private documents, such as domestic partnership agreements, inheritance and beneficiary designations in wills and other documents, medical decision making, and more, can establish arrangements between couples whose state law legal incidents are equivalent to those provided by marriage, and in states like Colorado that are at first glance hostile to gay marriage, these legal arrangements are increasingly easier to put in place and adopting non-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation. Many couples never put the full package in place, but many, although not all, of the practical state law legal disabilities associated with not being married can be overcome.
Colorado was just a couple of votes short of a civil unions bill in the 2011 legislative session, it has a U.S. Congressman and a number of prominent state legislators who are openly gay or lesbian, it has a U.S. Senator, Michael Bennet, who is co-sponsoring DOMA repeal, and its Governor is a supporter of gay rights who made a high profile appearance at this year's Denver Pridefest. Colorado's designated beneficiary act is just a notch short of a full domestic partnership law, Denver has a process by which couples can register as domestic partners, Colorado has included sexual orientation in almost all of its non-discrimination laws, and Colorado has made other same sex couple friendly adjustments to other aspects of its private law. If Democrats regain control of the state house in 2012, and possibly even if public opinion shifts even a small number of state legislative votes in the 2012 legislative session, Colorado will probably have civil unions by 2012 or 2013.
The solid regional blocks of legal recognition for same sex couples that are in place now and growing will make denial of full faith and credit look increasingly bigoted and will make this denial increasingly administratively cumbersome as a practical manner.
The Denver Post today cited statistics from the Census Bureau identifying more than 16,000 people who are gay or lesbian partners living together in 2010 up from a little more than 10,000 in 2000. About a quarter are in Denver, and thousands more are in the metropolitan area. It is increasingly easy for same sex couples to have a marriage or civil union somewhere, and to the extent that out of state couples are given the opportunity to marry in states that do permit same sex marriages, this will presumably provide full recognition at the federal level nationwide if the federal government portion of DOMA is held unconstitutional, even if the states where the couples reside do not themselves recognize their marriages as valid.
For example, suppose that the federal government portion of DOMA is invalidated and two men from Denver get married in New York City, and then return to Denver. They file their federal tax returns as a married couple filing jointly. Colorado law provides that state taxable income is a fixed percentage of federal taxable income. But, this state tax rule is hard to apply if Colorado does not permit couples that are treated as married filing jointly for federal tax purposes to be taxed with the same filing status at the state level.
DOMA does not appear to allow one state to invalidate an adoption of a child by a same sex couple granted in another state. Community property rights that were accrued by members of same sex couples in a state that gives their relationship formal legal status equivalent to marriage probably persist, even if the couples moves to other non-community property states, and give rise, at least, to a partition right, if not a right to a true divorce proceeding. The more that this issues become practical ones immersed in people's everyday lives, rather than exceptional issues of principle, the less controversial they will become.