Jubilation, Denunciation Greet Ill. Civil Unions Law

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday February 2, 2011

The signing of a bill by Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn to create civil unions in that state was hailed by equality advocates, but excoriated by anti-gay groups.

Gov. Quinn signed the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act. on Jan. 31. The Human Rights Campaign issued a press release praising the action on the same day. "Today marks a tremendous step towards equality for all families in Illinois," said Joe Solmonese, the head of the HRC.

"The new law will permit both same-sex and opposite-sex couples to enter into civil unions and receive the same benefits, protections, and responsibilities under Illinois law that are granted to spouses," noted the release. "Couples who enter into a civil union will not receive any rights or benefits under federal law. Illinois still does not permit same-sex couples to marry. The law explicitly allows religious entities to choose not to solemnize or officiate civil unions."

But the inclusion of language to protect religious liberty did not appease anti-gay groups, who suggested that the measure was an affront to God.

David E. Smith, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute said recognizing civil unions is merely a stepping stone to legalizing same-sex marriage.

"Marriage was not created by man or governments," declared David E. Smith, the head of anti-gay organization the Illinois Family Institute, the Christian Post reported on Feb. 1. "It is an institution created by God. Governments merely recognize its nature and importance."

Smith went on to deny that marriage equality is a civil rights issue, saying, "Homosexual behavior is not equivalent to race and gender diversity is essential to marriage. It is intellectually dishonest to argue otherwise."

In passing the bill, Gov. Quinn said that Illinois lawmakers were "showing the world that the people of Illinois believe in equality for all," the Christian Post reported. "We look forward to individuals and businesses from across the country choosing to move to Illinois, where we believe that everyone is entitled to the same rights."

The article also noted that one of the bill's co-sponsors, Rep. Greg Harris, is openly gay.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. David Koehler (D-Peoria) and Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), who is openly gay.

The bill's sponsor in the State Senate, Dave Koehler, told the media on Jan. 31, "This legislation is a matter of fundamental fairness. All of us have friends, family members, co-workers, or neighbors who are gay. They deserve the same right to make decisions for their partners during hospital stays as me and my wife. They deserve to have valid legal recognition of their commitment to each other. Today, we've told them their relationships are as valid as anyone else's."

But for the head of Mormon-affiliated anti-gay organization the National Organization of Marriage, the bill didn't do enough to accommodate religious objections, and constitutes a threat to the family, according to anti-gay religious site WorldNetDaily. "The new Illinois civil union law undermines marriage in three ways," declared NOM leader Maggie Smith. "[I]t permits opposite-sex couples to enter civil unions, undermining marriage's special status, it will put the marriage statute under new threat from the courts, and it fails to contain minimally adequate religious liberty protection."

NOM, a major proponent of California's divisive Proposition 8--which, when narrowly approved by voters in 2008, stripped gay and lesbian families of then-existing marriage rights--has launched media campaigns in several states where marriage exists, or where there is a reasonably good chance that it might be approved some day soon.

Firebrand preacher and political activist Isaac C. Hayes decried the bill's signing as a modern version of "Sodom and Gomorrah," WND reported. "The passage of the civil union bill by the Illinois legislature amounts to nothing less than a frontal assault on original marriage," declared Hayes. "An iota of the population has bulldozed legislation upon the masses that should have been put to referendum on the November ballot."

WND noted that civil unions are also offered by a number of other states, "includ[ing] Massachusetts, California, and Iowa, among others which are in open revolt against traditional mores."

The HRC release offered more detail. "Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington D.C. provide marriage to same-sex couples under state law," the release read. "New York and Maryland recognize out-of-jurisdiction same-sex marriages, but do not provide marriage licenses to same-sex couples in state.

"Five other states--California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington--provide same-sex couples with access to almost all of the state level benefits and responsibilities of marriage, through either civil unions or domestic partnerships," the release added.

"Colorado, Hawaii, Maine and Wisconsin provide gay and lesbian couples with limited rights and benefits, not all rights provided to married couples," continue the HRC media release. "An attorney general opinion and subsequent court ruling in Rhode Island resulted in limited recognition of out-of-jurisdiction marriages of same-sex couples. California recognized marriage for same-sex couples between June and November of 2008, before voters approved Proposition 8, which purports to amend the state constitution to prohibit marriage equality. Couples married during that window remain married under California law, but all other same-sex couples can only receive a domestic partnership within the state. The state will recognize out-of-jurisdiction same-sex marriages that occurred before November 5, 2008 as marriages and those that occurred on or after November 5, 2008 as similar to domestic partnerships.

"Same-sex couples do not receive federal rights and benefits in any state," the release noted.

For Ill. gay couple Ray Welsh and Patrick Dalton, the legal map and punishing theological arguments are secondary to the plain fact that they will now legally be able to formalize their eight-year relationship. "It completes our relationship together," Welsh, 27, told the Chicago Sun-Times. "So now it's not just a figure of speech that we are committed, and it will be recognition for us statewide."

Added Dalton, 29, "It's important to the gay community, it really is. It's not just us."

Welsh and Dalton--and families like them in Illinois, along with heterosexual couples--will be able to secure civil unions starting June 1.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.