Activists hope Illinois ready to OK civil unions

Posted on 20 Apr 2009 at 2:14pm
By Andrea Zelinski Associated Press

On-the-fence lawmakers stalling bill’s progress

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — In the wake of victories for same-sex marriage in other states, Illinois gay-rights activists plan to push forward soon with legislation to allow civil unions — but not marriages.

Iowa and Vermont this month became the newest states to let gay couples marry, creating momentum supporters hope will persuade Illinois to take a step in that direction.

"Illinois never wants to be behind Iowa on doing anything," Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat and longtime supporter of gay rights, said Friday, April 17.

But Illinois lawmakers aren’t discussing gay marriage. Instead, some are pushing for civil unions that would give same-sex couples some benefits of marriage — like the right to make a partner’s emergency health care decisions — without letting them tie the knot.

The problem, advocates say, is convincing on-the-fence legislators that civil unions are about recognizing relationships, not legalizing gay marriage. They hope approval of same-sex marriages in other states will make civil unions seem like an acceptable compromise in Illinois.

Supporters feel confident they can find enough votes to pass civil unions in the state Senate. The battleground will be the House.

Rep. Greg Harris says his legislation is almost ripe for consideration. The Chicago Democrat is trying to pin down the last few supporters he needs before calling the bill for a vote — something he’s been trying to do for months.

The issue of gay rights, let alone marriage or civil unions, remains contentious.

Members of the gay community in Peoria earlier this month protested outside a bar known as The Elbo Room after it displayed a handwritten sign reading "WE ARE NOT A GAY BAR!!" The sign came down after the city warned the bar’s owner he might be violating a city civil rights ordinance.

Hostility toward gay teen-agers was the target of a national "Day of Silence" Friday around the country. Some students remained silent throughout the day to bring attention to harassment and bullying.

Opponents of civil unions intend to fight any legal recognition for same-sex couples. They argue even civil unions would open the door to gay marriage, which they consider an affront to traditional marriage and religious liberty.

"Counterfeit marriage doesn’t play in Peoria, said David E. Smith, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute.

Stephanie Worlow, who was part of the Peoria bar protests, says she feels at home and accepted in Peoria, but the civil union issue serves as a reminder of how she is, legally speaking, different from most of her neighbors.

If she or her partner of five years were hospitalized, she points out, the other wouldn’t legally have any say in medical or financial decisions.

"I don’t have any right to be there because I’m not her family and I’m not her husband," Worlow said.

Opponents of civil unions say gay couples can seek a power of attorney to legally dictate who can make those health care decisions, visit them in hospitals, take possession of a deceased partners’ remains or inherit their estate.

"They’re not being denied anything," said Smith, who predicted other states flirting with gay marriage laws won’t make much difference in Illinois.

Civil unions have some support from the state’s top Democrats, including Gov. Pat Quinn and Senate President John Cullerton. House Speaker Michael Madigan’s spokesman Steve Brown wouldn’t weigh in on the issue, although the speaker helped Harris by giving his bill an exemption from the usual deadline for action.

In the meantime, supporters are talking one-on-one with hesitant lawmakers who either fear backlash from constituents or are torn with their personal beliefs. The crux of the conversations, says supporter Rep. John Fritchey, is the distinction between the religious institution of marriage and the legal rights and privileges that come with being a committed couple.

Advocates are planning to lobby Springfield Apr. 29, knocking on legislators’ doors to convince them to support civil unions — even if supporters ultimately are looking for gay marriage.

"It’s no longer a question of should there be same-sex marriage," said Rick Garcia, director of Public Policy for Equality Illinois advocacy group. "The only question is, when is it coming here?"

The bill is HB2234.

On the Net: www.ilga.gov

Associated Press Writer David Mercer contributed to this report from Champaign.

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