In 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples could not be barred from getting married. This shattered the existing legal landscape where most states had created some sort of legal recognition for same-sex relationships.
Historical background on state recognition of same-sex relationships
Civil unions had a very short life in the United States. In 2000, Vermont passed the first American civil-union law after a state court ruled that same-sex couples must be offered an option to enjoy the benefits of marriage. The Vermont law awarded same-sex couples most of the rights and responsibilities of marriage. A handful of other states quickly followed suit, as California and New Jersey created registered domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. By that point, gay marriage was gaining support in many more liberal states, but it was still an unpopular policy across the country. Both Pres. George W. Bush (R) and his opponent Sen. John Kerry (D) opposed same-marriage in the 2004 election, and 11 states passed laws that restricted gay marriages. Sen. Kerry did say he would support a civil union law in his home state of Massachusetts.
Instead, Massachusetts completely skipped over the civil union idea and began offering same-sex marriages based on a decision by the state’s supreme court in 2004. In the coming years, public attitudes about gay marriage would shift rapidly until it reached majority support by 2014. That year, same-sex marriage was legal in 35 states and Washington D.C. At that time, many states that had legalized civil unions still continued to offer them. Most couples given the choice between a marriage and a civil union choose marriage, however.
Current state recognition of civil unions
Civil unions only became common in a few states as an alternative to marriage before the concept was overtaken by the wave of same-sex marriage legalization. After the 2015 Supreme Court case legalized gay marriage across the country, most states eliminated their civil union laws. As a result, very few states still offer civil unions.
A civil union or domestic partnership appears to still be available in:
- Washington, D.C.
- New Jersey
Most other states automatically converted all their civil unions to marriages. For example, Washington State issued a notice in 2014 that all same-sex civil unions where both partners were under 62 would automatically be converted to marriages unless one partner notified the state that the civil union was in the process of being dissolved. Likewise, Connecticut said in 2010 that any civil union would be merged into a marriage unless it was in the process of being dissolved.
Because civil unions were a short-lived idea, state courts are still trying to figure out how to handle them. For example, a Vermont couple that moved to Pennsylvania after entering a civil union has been struggling to undo their union. Pennsylvania courts finally decided to treat the civil union like a marriage and grant a divorce, but this unwinding of a civil union has been a challenge in many states.