Getting the Marriage Story Right: the History, Current Law & the Future

The battle over marriage rights for same sex couples in America has been a major news story for much of the past decade. It continues to be an ever-evolving story, with new developments arising throughout the country each year.

Reporters covering the marriage debate should remember that marriage laws are determined by state governments, yet federal laws and regulations (such as the tax code) relating to marriage are an essential part of the story (see Defense of Marriage Act). Traditionally, in accordance with the fourth article of the U.S. Constitution, each state has recognized marriage licenses issued in other states.

Journalists reporting on this complex subject should also note the differences between civil unions and marriage. Vermont’s legislature created civil unions in 2000 in response to a state Supreme Court decision requiring them to extend all the benefits, rights and privileges of marriage to same-sex couples. This contract carries all of the benefits of marriage within the state’s power to bestow except the name “marriage.” Connecticut, New Hampshire and New Jersey later enacted their own civil union laws.

Current State Laws

States Where Same-Sex Marriage is Legal

According to the latest data available, nine states (Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington) and the District of Columbia grant marriage rights to same-sex couples. The only other state with legally married same-sex couples is California. (See the Journalists Toolbox online for a more in-depth discussion of same-sex marriage in California.)

States With Civil Unions or Domestic Partnerships

Nine states offer civil unions or other legal arrangements similar to marriage (Delaware,  Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey and Rhode Island offer civil union, California, Oregon, Nevada and Wisconsin offer domestic partnerships), such as domestic partnerships. The Colorado legislature established civil unions in 2013 and the law will take effect on May 1, 2013.

States Which Ban Same-Sex Marriage

Thirty states have enacted gay marriage bans in their constitutions. In 2009, Maine passed a ban on same-sex marriages then later overturned the ban in 2012 and extended marriage benefits to same-sex couples. In 2012, Minnesota the first state to defeat a ban on same-sex marriages. 

In comparison, eleven countries allow same-sex marriage: Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Sweden. Another twenty countries allow civil unions or other legal arrangements similar to marriage.

The Defense of Marriage Act

No matter what the states do, the federal government’s Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, defines marriage as an institution that can only be entered into by a man and a woman. As a February 2004 Associated Press article noted, “Even if you’re legally joined in Vermont, you and your partner remain strangers in the eyes of the federal government. This means that you still won’t receive any federal benefits for married people, like unlimited tax-free spousal gifts and Social Security transfers."

In October 2011, gay and married military personnel filed suit against the Defense of Marriage Act.  According to an Associated Press report, the filing argues that the Act “violates their constitutional rights and asks the military to recognize their marriages and provide spousal benefits such as medical coverage and the right to be buried together in military cemeteries.

The Benefits of Marriage

LGBT advocates say denying same-sex couples the rights and responsibilities accorded to married couples is unfair. A 1997 study by the General Accounting Office pointed out at least 1,049 federal laws in which marital status is a factor.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, same-sex couples “in lifelong relationships pay higher taxes and are denied basic protections under the law” including, in some cases, hospital visitation rights. “They receive no Social Security survivor benefits upon the death of a partner, despite paying payroll taxes. They must pay federal income taxes on their employer’s contributions toward their domestic partner’s health insurance, while married employees do not have to pay such taxes for their spouses. They must pay all estate taxes when a partner dies. They often pay significant tax penalties when they inherit a 401(k) from their partner. They are denied family leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.”

Journalists writing about marriage may want to personalize the issue by interviewing same-sex couples, family law experts, financial planners and tax professionals about how the denial of these benefits directly affects families. The marriage debate is not just a political story; it is also a story about society, personal finance and business.

Civil vs. Religious Ceremonies

Much of this discussion has intentionally centered on the government’s definition of marriage. Journalists covering this debate should remember that the government issues civil marriage licenses. Religious organizations retain the right to perform marriage ceremonies as they choose; a government’s allowing same-sex couples to marry will not force any churches to perform such ceremonies.

Using Accurate Language in Reports

Journalists (along with politicians and lay people) have struggled with language and terminology on this issue.
NLGJA’s Stylebook Supplement on LGBT Terminology recommends the following: “Advocates for the right to marry seek the legal rights and obligations of marriage, not a variation of it. Often, the most neutral approach is to avoid any adjective modifying the word ‘marriage.’ For the times in which a distinction is necessary, ‘marriage for same-sex couples’ is preferable in stories. When there is a need for shorthand description (such as in headline writing), ‘same-sex marriage’ is preferred because it is more inclusive and more accurate than ‘gay.’”

Tip sheets

NLGJA offers topical tip sheets by reporters for reporters covering current issues relating to the LGBT Community. Tip sheets are available online in PDF or HTML.Adobe Reader is required to view the forms as PDF.