The rights of gay and lesbian couples in civil unions are very different from those in heterosexual marriages in significant ways. First, a civil union is not the same type of legal arrangement as a marriage. It offers more rights than a domestic partnership, but less then those of marriage. For example, New Jersey's Domestic Partnership Act does not require employers to allow those in domestic partnerships to take family leave to care for an ill partner, whereas civil unions do afford this protection. A marriage allows for both state and federal benefits, whereas civil unions only provide for state benefits. Social security and veteran benefits are just some of the federal benefits not permitted by civil unions.
Health insurance is a especially important area where rights are different between civil unions and marriage. Civil unions require government employers to offer health insurance to partners and government agencies are barred from discriminatory treatment between same-sex and different-sex couples. This means that in government, both state and local, employees must be offered the same rights as heterosexual couples in terms of healthcare. New Jersey also has a law that similarly bars all employers from treating same-sex couples differently from their different-sex counterparts. But - any employer whose business involves federal law can claim that these non-discrimination laws do not apply to its business and therefore does not have to provide healthcare for partners in civil unions. It is important to know that this is an option - not a requirement - for these employers.
The legal rights associated with having children in civil unions are unclear. If one person already has a child and then enters a civil union, his/her partner is not presumed to be the legal parent of that child. He/she must adopt the child separately. If a child is born to a same-sex couple, there is the legal presumption that the two partners are the child's legal parents. But this presumption may not be enough in a court of law and such parents should speak with an attorney about formally adopting the child just to be safe.
One thing that is the same for civil unions and marriages is the dissolution of the arrangement. Filing for dissolution of a civil union involves the same process for filing for divorce. The steps for ending a civil union are the same as for a marriage, and the same rules apply for alimony, dividing assets, and doling out responsibilities for the children.
That's the law - so far. Rights in civil unions is an evolving area of law. New developments that will clarify some of these murky areas can be expected in the near future. With assistance from Angela Yu, Rutgers School of Law & Rutgers Business School.