The Illinois Legislature has voted to legalize civil unions, although some are wondering whether the measure that the governor is expected to sign will make it easier or harder to someday win approval of same-sex marriage.
After Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signs the measure, gay and lesbian couples will be able to get official recognition from the state and gain many of the rights that accompany marriage – the power to decide medical treatment for an ailing partner, for instance. Illinois law will continue to limit marriage to one man and woman, and the federal government won’t recognize the civil unions at all.
Five states already allow civil unions or their equivalent. Five other states and Washington, D.C., let gay couples marry outright.
Some supporters of civil unions in Illinois hope they’ll be a step toward full marriage.
“The ultimate goal is not to be separate but equal,” said Jacob Meister, president of The Civil Rights Agenda, a gay rights organization. Meister said civil unions are a necessary compromise because they will provide important protections for gay couples.
But even advocates acknowledge it’s possible that by accepting civil unions now, they may be delaying movement toward being able to marry. The compromise could weaken any arguments that gay people are being treated unfairly by not being allowed to marry.
The sponsors of the civil unions bill said they don’t plan to push for legalizing same-sex marriages, which have limited support in the Legislature.
“As soon as the governor signs it, it’s the law of the state of Illinois and that’s what we’re going to live with and going to make work,” said Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria.
Modesto Valle, executive director of Chicago’s Center on Halsted, said he welcomes civil unions but worries the legislation may stall ultimate approval of same-sex marriage. He said it will take “tremendous work” to turn civil unions into “a platform to move toward marriage equality” in Illinois.
Courtney Reid, 48, of Chicago said she and her partner of 12 years have decided they won’t pursue a civil union, preferring to wait until same-sex marriage is recognized by federal law and gay couples get all the tax benefits and other rights available to heterosexual couples.
“It’s a stand on principle for us,” Reid said.
Supporters presented the civil unions legislation as a matter of basic fairness for all Illinois residents. With civil unions, state law will treat gay and lesbian couples as if they were married. They will, for instance, inherit property when a partner dies.
“It’s time for us to look history in the eye and not flinch,” said state Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg, D-Evanston.
Opponents argued it moves Illinois closer to legalizing same-sex marriages. They said civil unions are basically marriage by another name and that they could give the courts a reason to step in and order Illinois to allow full marriage to everyone.
Some senators also criticized the time being spent on civil unions at a time when the state faces a massive budget crisis.
The Illinois Family Institute said legislators failed to examine the legislation clearly.
“Proponents engaged in embarrassing and maudlin displays of sentimentality intended to emotionally manipulate rather than intellectually persuade their colleagues,” said executive director David E. Smith.
Cardinal Francis George and other Catholic leaders fought civil unions vigorously. Conservative groups also lobbied to block the measure. They argued it could hurt religious institutions.
The law does not require churches to recognize civil unions or perform any kind of ceremony, opponents acknowledge, but critics fear it would lead to other requirements, such as including same-sex couples in adoption programs run by religious groups or granting benefits to employees’ partners.
Some religious leaders welcomed the legislation. In Chicago, Rabbi Larry Edwards said he’s looking forward to planning celebrations for couples in his Jewish congregation who may decide to form civil unions under Illinois law.
“To those who say it’s a slippery slope and eventually will lead to marriage, I say, ‘I hope so,’” said Edwards, who leads the city’s LGBT Congregation Or Chadash synagogue.
The Rev. Vernice Thorn of Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago said she considers the vote a hopeful sign. “Same-sex legalized marriage is going to happen. It’s just a matter of when.”