Civil unions will be signed into law in Illinois on Jan. 31

Gov. Pat Quinn will make same-sex civil unions official in Illinois during a public signing ceremony in Chicago’s Loop on Jan. 31, according to openly gay state Rep. Greg Harris.

Harris was lead sponsor of the bill legalizing civil unions, which passed the state’s legislature late last year. The new law affords gay and lesbian couples official recognition from the state and many of the rights that accompany marriage, such as the power to decide medical treatment for an ailing partner.

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.

Supporters say they hope civil unions will serve as a stepping-stone toward full marriage equality.

“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.