1999: Civil Unions in Vermont
In 1999, the same year the Hawaiian Supreme Court refused to recognize same-sex marriages, the Vermont Supreme Court handed down its decision in Baker v. State. In that decision, the court said that same-sex couples must be granted the same benefits and protections that heterosexual couples received under state law. The court instructed the state legislature to determine how to grant homosexual couples those benefits and protections. It didn’t require the state to allow same-sex couples to be legally married but instead told the state legislature it had to find some way to treat those couples the same as if they were legally married.
The Civil Union is Born
The next year, the state passed a bill allowing same-sex couples to enter into "civil unions." Town clerks were authorized to give licenses to same-sex couples for these unions in the same way they would give out marriage licenses. Same-sex couples could be married by anyone authorized to perform marriages under state law and would have to divorce under state law in the same way heterosexual couples would. According to the Vermont Secretary of State, in the first five years since the passage of the civil union law, 1,142 Vermont couples and 6,424 couples from other states and nations were joined.
Same-sex couples in civil unions in Vermont are entitled to all the benefits available under state law to married couples, including medical decisions, estate inheritance, overseeing burials, transferring properties, and certain tax breaks. Employers are required to treat civil union couples in the same way they treated other married couples, in matters including health benefits, marital status discrimination law, workers' compensation benefits, taxation, family leave benefits and wage assignment laws.
Civil Union Replaced by Same-Sex Marriage
The Vermont civil union bill was a landmark in the fight over gay marriages. For the first time, a state allowed gay couples to have all the same benefits as married couples under state law. In 2009, Vermont went one step further and approved same-sex marriages. The civil union is no longer available in Vermont, but any civil union entered into before September 1, 2009 is still honored.
Civil unions and the similar domestic partnership option are still offered in some states, such as Colorado, even though same-sex marriage is now legal at the federal level. Civil unions are also still available in Hawaii, Illinois, and Rhode Island. Oregon and Nevada provide broad domestic partnership benefits.
Same-sex marriage laws continuously changed up until the Supreme Court's 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision. And since marriage is no longer restricted to just heterosexual couples, the relevance of both civil unions and domestic partnerships likely will wane.