Are Civil Unions Replacing Marriage?

by Dr. Gene Edward Veith
July 23, 2010

Prior to coming to PHC, at which he served briefly as Dean of Academic Affairs before becoming Provost, Dr. Gene Edward Veith was the Culture Editor of World Magazine. He is well-known in Christian, conservative, and homeschooling circles through his writing books and speaking on various aspects of Christianity and culture.

More and more states have established “civil unions” as an alternative to marriage for homosexual couples.  This marriage-lite substitute grants certain legal benefits -- some of the economic advantages of marriage, visitation rights, and the like -- without the full partnership provisions of marriage. 

Society has an overriding interest in strong, permanent families, and, as a result, getting out of a marriage is not so easy.  Civil unions, on the other hand, are little more than temporary contracts designed for convenience.  Whereas breaking up a marriage involves the major surgery of a divorce -- which involves, in addition to the emotional trauma, great expense, child-custody issues, and property division -- a civil union can be simply dissolved when the partners want to.  

So what would be the long-term impact on a society if civil unions began to replace marriage?  Well, we can look to other countries that have had them longer to get some idea.

In France, civil unions, which have been legal for a decade, are actually replacing traditional marriage. Heterosexual couples, not just gays, are entering into civil unions instead of getting married.  After all, civil unions allow no discrimination concerning sexual orientation.  Men and women are realizing that if the relationship does not work out, a civil union seems like a better alternative than having to go through a messy divorce.

This is from a story in The Washington Post entitled Straight Couples in France Are Choosing Civil Unions Meant for Gays (February 14, 2009):

The PACS [French acronym for the civil union law] broadened into an increasingly popular third option for heterosexual couples, who readily cite its appeal: It has the air of social independence associated with the time-honored arrangement that the French call the “free union” but with major financial and other advantages. It is also far easier to get out of than marriage.

The number of PACS celebrated in France, both gay and heterosexual unions, has grown from 6,000 in its first year of operation in 1999 to more than 140,000 in 2008, according to official statistics. For every two marriages in France, a PACS is celebrated, the statistics show, making a total of half a million PACSed couples, and the number is rising steadily. . . .

Perhaps more important as an indication of how French people live, the number of heterosexual men and women entering into a PACS agreement has grown from 42 percent of the total initially to 92 percent last year.

The French may have come up with the new term for “just living together” that people have been searching for: “free unions.” In France, heterosexuals have all but completely taken over the civil union option.  Ninety-two percent of the civil unions are between men and women, with only eight percent being for homosexuals, whom the law was made for. 

The civil unions give heterosexual couples financial advantages, but when one of them wants to leave, it’s easy: “If one or both of the partners declares in writing to the court that he or she wants out, the PACS is ended, with neither partner having claim to the other’s property or to alimony.”

So much for family permanence.  So much for the security of women.  So much for taking care of children. Couples going into marriage with this up-front expectation that the relationship will not be permanent -- contrary to the Biblical norm of love and faithfulness “till death us do part” -- is already proving devastating to the institution of the family. Only time will tell how nations themselves fare as the traditional family, the bedrock relational glue that holds society together, slowly disappears.

The point here is that in establishing new kinds of families that are unprecedented in human history and unknown in any other culture -- such as civil unions and gay marriages -- we are experimenting with the basic unit of society, an institution absolutely fundamental to the well-being of children, as well as to the partners themselves.  This cannot be done without unintended, possibly grave, consequences.  And lawmakers who enact these novel cultural arrangements have no idea what they are doing.