December 25, 2008

The Lowery Revelation—and Gay Marriage vs. Civil Unions ~ Part II, via Danny Fisher.

There’s a new twist in the flap over President-Elect Obama’s inauguration that I wrote about for elephant journal earlier this week. Rev. Joseph Lowery, the civil rights icon and co-founder (with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who will be offering the benediction at the ceremony, now states, despite previous reports to the contrary, that he does not support gay marriage. NewsBusters has the full story. 

In my piece, I referenced an ABC News interview in which Lowery said he supported same-sex marriage and that “when you talk about the law discriminating, the law granting a privilege here, and a right here and denying it there, that’s a civil rights issue.” On Tuesday, he changed his tone in an interview with MSNBC, saying:

Well, I’ve never said I support gay marriage. I support gay rights and I support civil unions. Like a whole lot of people, I have some difficulty with the term gay marriage. Because deep in my heart, deeply rooted in my heart and mind, marriage is associated with man and woman. So I have a little cultural shock with that. But I certainly support civil unions, and that gay partners ought to have all the rights that any other citizens have in this country.

With respect, Rev. Lowery should have stuck with his first line. This is because a civil union DOES NOT guarantee the same rights and privileges as marriage.

To support civil unions and not gay marriage means supporting second-class citizenship for the LGBTQI community—plain and simple—and that’s wrong (though I certainly don’t have to tell that to Rev. Lowery). 

Civil unions offer many of the same rights and privileges of marriage, but exclusively at the state-level—they are not recognized by the United States Federal Government the way that marriages are. Furthermore, under the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (DOMA), other U.S. states are not obliged to recognize these unions, nor are they required to recognize legal gay marriages in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Not very many states offer civil unions either: in addition to the Connecticut and Massachusetts, only Vermont, New Jersey, and New Hampshire recognize civil unions. (Domestic partnership registries, which are similar to civil unions, are available in California, Oregon, Washington, Maine, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Hawai’i recognizes reciprocal beneficiary relationships between same-sex couples.) The General Accounting Office lists over 1,100 benefits and protections for married couples—which relate to things like Social Security and VA benefits, health insurance and visitation rights, family leave, immigration law, taxes, and more—and civil unions protect only some of these rights. Because civil unions are not recognized by the federal government, this means, among many other things:


  • gay couples cannot file joint-tax returns and enjoy some of the same tax protections as married couples;
  • a United States citizen cannot sponsor a non-American for immigration through a civil union the way he or she could through marriage;
  • if someone in a civil union receives benefits through their employer for their partner and/or children from that union, they must report the entire premium–including the share he or she paid and the share the employer paid–as income on his or her federal tax return.


If you want to be an ally to the LGBTQI community and support rights for all, then support for civil unions simply doesn’t cut it. Civil unions mean the law “discriminating here, and granting a privilege there.”

And, as a wise man once pointed out, that’s a civil rights issue.



A version of this piece originally appeared at Rev. Danny Fisher’s most excellent blog.





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