Could Ill. Same-Sex Couples Win Civil Unions?
Same-sex couple in the land of Lincoln could be looking at the prospect of seeing their families enjoy a measure of legal recognition, if the Illinois state legislature approves a bill to provide for civil unions in a November session.
But although the bill reportedly has the support it needs to pass both the house and senate and go to the state’s governor, lawmakers caution that greater equality for same-sex families may not be a top priority, reported local newspaper the Lincoln Daily News on Aug. 24.
"I would like to do this as soon as possible," the bill’s sponsor, openly gay Democratic state Rep. Greg Harris, told the press. "But every member of the General Assembly has two priorities on their mind right now: jobs and the economy, and the terrible state the budget is in."
The article noted that one state, New Jersey, currently allows civil unions for same-sex families. The governor of Hawaii recently vetoed legislation that would have extended civil unions to gay and lesbian families. Seven states allow varying degrees of recognition for same-sex families under domestic partnership provisions. Five states and the District of Columbia allow for full-fledged marriage equality on the state level. A sixth state, California, rescinded marriage equality at the ballot box in 2008, but that ballot initiative was recently stuck down as unconstitutional; the case is being appealed, and further marriages in California have been placed on hold. In Maine last year, a similar defeat derailed a state law that would have granted marriage parity. A 1996 federal law, the so-called "Defense of Marriage" Act, denies gay and lesbian couples any federal recognition.
If the civil unions bill were to clear the state’s house and senate and be signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn--who is thought likely to sign the bill, should it reach his desk--gay and lesbian families in Illinois would then enjoy the same state-level rights and protections that married couples are granted.
For anti-gay activists, however, that is a sticking point. "It’s counterfeit marriage by another name," David Smith, the executive director of anti-gay group the Illinois Family Institute, declared. "It’s a steppingstone to full same-sex marriage." The article noted that the Illinois Family Institute attempted in 2006 to put the rights of gay and lesbian families before voters with a ballot initiative that would have amended the state constitution in such a way that same-sex couples would have been legally locked out of marriage rights. The group was unsuccessful at gathering enough signatures to qualify the initiative for inclusion on the ballot, however.
The November session will convene after the midterm elections. At that point, even if the Democrats lose their current majority in the house and senate, they may well vote to send the bill to the governor, also a Democrat. A situation similar to that very scenario played out last year in New Jersey, when state lawmakers declined a final opportunity to advance a bill that would have granted marriage equality to same-sex families in that state before outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine was succeeded by anti-gay Gov. Chris Christie.
Gov. Quinn’s campaign website speaks of Quinn "supporting equal marital rights," with text at the site saying, "Governor Quinn believe the committed relationships of same-sex couples deserve the same basic recognition rights that are currently extended to married heterosexual couples--including the right to act as next of kin, the right to assist their partners in times of emergency, the right to equal health insurance and other employment benefits, and the right to equal treatment in property and inheritance." Those issues would likely be addressed by the civil unions bill.
While the issue of marriage equality is still politically sensitive, it has become much more socially accepted. An Aug. 22 Examiner.com article noted that a recent poll by the Chicago Tribune found support for marriage parity tied with opposition to it, with each side weighing in at 42%.
By opting to pursue civil unions instead of marriage equality, however, supporters say that legislators have given the bill a chance at passing. "We’re nowhere near equal marriage rights, but a civil union bill would pass," said Equality Illinois’ Rick Garcia, going on to add, "This issue is not a big deal."