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Katie Sanders
By Katie Sanders February 22, 2013

Do places with domestic partnerships have fewer marriages?

Florida lawmakers heard a bill that would allow couples who live together anywhere in the state to register for a domestic partnership, a designation that would afford them some of the same rights as married couples.

The outlook for SB 196 isn’t promising. Social conservatives control the Capitol, Florida voters enacted a ban on gay marriage in the state Constitution, and bill sponsor Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, could not get enough votes to move her measure out of her committee.

Sobel called it the "shacking up" bill because it would benefit all couples, both gay and straight, who live together but choose not to marry. Sobel’s domestic partnership bill would eliminate the patchwork of 18 registries enacted by counties such as Orange, Pinellas, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, and cities such as St. Petersburg, Tampa, Clearwater, North Miami  and Miami Beach.

Proponents testified before the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee on Feb. 19, 2013, sharing stories about not being able to be with their partner at the hospital because they were not married.

On the other side, members of religious groups, including Michael Sheedy, Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops public policy director, testified that the law would diminish traditional marriage.

"In other jurisdictions where this has been enacted, we have seen that fewer people enter into marriage," Sheedy said. "They take it less seriously, it has less value in the minds of some."

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, asked Sheedy for more information about his claim that the number of marriages falls in places where domestic partnerships are in place. Sheedy said Spain came to mind. Clemens pressed him for any examples in the United States, and Sheedy said he could not think of any off the top of his head.

We also wanted to know more about Sheedy’s statement. In a phone conversation the next day, he acknowledged not finding data about this happening in the United States. He did send us a few links from religious groups about the effect of gay marriage laws on traditional marriage in Spain and the Netherlands.

"While other factors such as growing unemployment played a role, there is a strong case that redefining marriage is mostly responsible for the decline," Sheedy said.

We wanted to examine his theory.

Declining popularity of marriage

Reports of marriage’s decline are not greatly exaggerated. Story after story has documented its waning popularity.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census data, 51 percent of American adults were married and 28 percent never had been as of December 2011. In 1960, 72 percent of adults were married and 15 percent never had been. The marriage decline is strongest among young adults.

The trend is not at all isolated to Americans, Pew points out. Other post-industrial societies are seeing the same thing. Stephanie Coontz, feminist scholar and author, explored what’s behind the drop in U.S. marriages in a Los Angeles Times column in 2012:

"Fifty years ago, getting married was a step young people took on the road to becoming economically secure, emotionally responsible and socially respectable. Today, it is more often the reward couples give themselves when they have achieved those goals. The vast majority of new marriages are between couples who have already cohabited. But many cohabiting couples refuse to marry until they are convinced that each partner has demonstrated his or her economic and emotional reliability."

The European experience

Spain and the Netherlands are countries frequently cited as examples of places where marriages declined when alternative options, in this case gay marriage, were offered.

Scandinavian countries -- Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Sweden -- were first to introduce marriage-like rights for gay couples in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. In a 2004 essay, Stanley Kurtz, of the conservative Hoover Institute at Stanford University, argued these laws hastened the decline of marriage and the family, pointing to corresponding upticks in child wedlock and cohabitation with a declining marriage rate. "The rise of fragile families based on cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbearing means that during the ‘90s, the total rate of family dissolution in Scandinavia significantly increased," he wrote for The Weekly Standard.

Kurtz has debated this issue in public essays for years with an advocate for gay marriage, M.V. Lee Badgett, research director of the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA.

She has criticized Kurtz’s analyses of marriage in Scandinavian countries, writing that marriage rates, divorce rates, and non-marital birth rates were already changing since the 1970s, in all post-industrial countries, regardless of whether they adopted same-sex partnership laws. In an interview, she said analyses like his don’t account for the number of people who are getting domestic partnerships and otherwise would not have gotten married.

The New York Times documented the popularity of civil solidarity pacts in France, pointing out that 95 percent of the pacts were between heterosexual couples in 2009. (These pacts more closely mirror the legislation Sobel proposed.) The Times reported that there were two civil unions for every three marriages in France,

Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, pointed us to the World Family Map 2013, which shows cohabitation is more common, and marriage in less common, in countries that have civil unions.

"Judging by the European experience, passage of civil unions laws appears to be linked to higher rates of cohabitation and lower rates of marriage," Wilcox said. "But it's possible that a weakening faith in marriage is driving all this, not any particular legislation."

What about the U.S.?

We could not find evidence of the trend Sheedy spoke about happening in the United States.

We looked for apples-to-apples comparisons with the 10 states and D.C. that have passed civil unions or domestic partnership registries. In those states -- Oregon, California, Nevada, New Jersey, Illinois, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Maine, D.C., Wisconsin -- the marriage rate has fallen, but that is consistent with the national trend. It’s also not different from other declining state-by-state marriage rates from the CDC since 1990. Florida’s own rate is down from 10.9 (marriages per 1,000 people) to 7.4.

Experts we consulted agreed on this point: There is no proven causative effect of the growth of domestic partnerships and declines in marriage.

"No one has done research to look at trends at what happens with domestic partnerships," Badgett said.

In an email interview, Coontz said the seeming correlation with the decline of marriage in most cases is due to more heterosexual couples avoiding or delaying marriage as attitudes about marriage alternatives become more accepting.

"As that happens, countries tend to get more accepting of cohabitation and of recognizing same-sex partnerships," Coontz said. "But the one does not cause the other. They both reflect longer-terms trends in gender relations, social tolerance and the institution of marriage."

Our ruling

In opposing a bill that would allow for domestic partnerships statewide, Sheedy of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops said, "In other jurisdictions where this has been enacted, we have seen that fewer people enter into marriage."

For domestic partnerships, he has offered no support in the United States, and no experts we consulted could find reports that vouch for that effect. In some countries, domestic partnership registries and gay marriage have increased while heterosexual marriage has decreased. But it’s not at all clear that the first trend is causing the second. In other words, correlation does not equal causation.

Marriage is declining in popularity across the world, and has been for decades. No one has shown rates are declining directly because of domestic partnerships.

We rate this statement Mostly False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources, SB 196

Interview with Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, Feb. 20, 2013

Interview with Michael Sheedy, Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops director of public policy, Feb. 20, 2013

Letter to Sen. Eleanor Sobel from FCCB, Feb. 18, 2013

Interview with Angela Dallara, Freedom to Marry spokeswoman, Feb. 19, 2013

Committee bill analysis of SB 196

National Conference of State Legislatures breakdown of states with domestic partnerships and civil unions, accessed Feb. 20, 2013

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, national marriage and divorce rate trends, accessed Feb. 20, 2013

CDC state marriage rates from 1999 to 2011

Interview with Stephanie Coontz, Council on Contemporary Families director of research and public education, Feb. 20, 2013

Interview with Nadine Smith, Equality Florida executive director, Feb. 20, 2013

Interview with M.V. Lee Badgett, University of Massachusetts economics professor, Feb. 20, 2013

Interview with Brad Wilcox, director of National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, Feb. 20, 2013

Council on Contemporary Families, "Will providing marriage rights to same-sex couples undermine marriage? Evidence from Scandinavia," May 1, 2004

New York Times, "In France, civil unions gain favor over marriage," Dec. 15, 2010

The Economist, "The decline of marriage: For richer, for smarter," June 23, 2011

Social Science Quarterly, "Same-Sex Marriage and Negative Externalities," June 2009

Institute for Marriage and Public Policy research brief, "The Tenth Anniversary of Dutch Same-Sex Marriage: How is marriage doing in the Netherlands?"May 2011

Los Angeles Times opinion-editorial, "Is the age of marriage over?," Jan. 19, 2012

Pew Research Center, "Barely half of US adults are married -- a record low," Dec. 14, 2011

World Map 2013, family structure statistics

Slate, "Does gay marriage destroy marriage? A look at the data," May 23, 2012

Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, gay marriage around the world,Feb. 8, 2013

The Weekly Standard, "The end of marriage in Scandinavia," Feb. 2, 2004

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