Illinois Legislature Okays Civil Unions
The Illinois Senate voted Dec. 1 to pass legislation allowing civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, one day after the Illinois House also voted to pass the bill.
Gov. Pat Quinn (D), who lobbied for the measure and was present when the votes were taken in each chamber, said he would sign the bill, slated to take effect in June, at a ceremony in January.
"The State of Illinois witnessed dramatic and historic change this week," said state Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago). "What happened this week was transformative for people across Illinois and throughout America."
Harris was chief sponsor of the legislation, which makes Illinois the 10th state in the U.S. to offer civil unions or domestic partnerships that give many of the same rights as marriage to gay and lesbian couples. Five states and the District of Columbia go beyond that and provide full marriage equality.
Harris and Equality Illinois leaders, who had worked together for several years to win approval of the legislation, had said they would call for a vote on the measure when they were convinced they had the support of enough legislators to pass it. That moment came late in the day Nov. 30, when Harris rose on the House floor to begin discussion of the measure.
"We have a chance here, as leaders have had in past generations, to correct injustice and move us down the path to liberty," Harris said.
Aware of objections raised by anti-gay groups such as the Illinois Family Institute, the New Jersey-based National Organization for Marriage and the Catholic Conference of Illinois, Harris told legislators the law would not force religious institutions to recognize or validate civil unions and that it was not the same as marriage.
"This law does not create marriage between couples of the same sex in Illinois," Harris said.
Harris also noted public opinion polls showing that substantial majorities of voters in Illinois support civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, and that newspapers around the state have editorialized in support of the measure.
"Where would Illinois be in the political spectrum of America if we passed this bill?" Harris said. "We would be in the broad middle."
Harris invoked the memory of the man he succeeded as representative of his North Side district, the late Rep. Larry McKeon (D-Chicago), the Illinois Legislature’s first openly gay member. Harris told his colleagues the story of how McKeon was told by hospital personnel that he could not stay at his dying partner’s bedside because he had no legal documentation that he was his partner.
"The hospital turned Larry away," Harris said.
Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago) also talked about McKeon, who she served alongside for years, asking her peers to "think carefully" about how they would feel if they were denied access to their dying life partners.
"Think about Larry," she said. "Let’s vote on the side of the angels today. Let’s vote for justice."
Rep. Deb Mell (D-Chicago), who announced on the House floor earlier this year that she and partner Christin Baker planned to marry in Iowa, told House members she feared the same thing could happen to her.
"If, God forbid, something happens to Christen, I am not permitted to speak for her. ..I am not considered family," Mell said. "Today with your yes vote, Christen and I can become family under the law."
Other legislators told colleagues of close family members who are gay.
"One of my brothers is openly gay and has been a long time, and it took a long time for me to talk about this issue, let alone talk about it on the House floor," said Rep. Ken Dunkin (D-Chicago). "My brother has been a responsible adult who has loved m unconditionally and it’s OK for me to support his love unconditionally."
One of the more dramatic moments came when Rep. Bill Black (R-Danville) announced his support, quoting the late U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) about why he broke with many members of his party to help Democratic President Lyndon Johnson pass landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
Like Dirksen, Black said, "I’d rather be right than consistent."
Reps. David Reis (R-Olney) and Ron Stephens (R-Highland) spoke against the bill, with Stephens warning that passing civil unions would send Illinois "down the slippery slope" toward same-sex marriage.
The bill passed with 61 in favor, 52 opposed, two voting present and three not voting.
The next day, shortly after noon, Senate leaders called the measure for a vote in that chamber.
"I have a gay daughter," Sen. David Koehler (D-Pekin), the bill’s chief Senate sponsor, told his colleagues as he opened discussion of the bill. "What it means is I have one daughter among three who doesn’t have the same rights the other two do."
Republican opponents raised more vociferous objections in the Senate than they had in the House, with Sen. Chris Lauzen (R-Aurora) ridiculing the importance of civil unions and equality for LGBTs.
"I would ask why civil unions now," Lauzen said, listing other issues facing legislators, then taking a mocking swipe at Democrats and gay and lesbian couples. "Our one-party government spends our time on homosexual civil unions."
Sen. Kyle McCarter (R-Decatur), another opponent, said repeatedly that he didn’t understand how civil unions differ from marriage, despite Koehler’s repeated explanations that even with passage of the measure Illinois would still prohibit gays and lesbians from marrying.
Sen. John Jones (R-Mount Vernon) criticized Quinn for even backing a vote on the measure.
"I have a problem when he makes this a priority over what he campaigned on, which is jobs," Jones said, ignoring the governor’s repeated pledges to voters during the fall election campaign that he would push for a civil unions vote as soon as the election was over.
Sen. Rickey Hendon (D-Chicago) launched into a blistering attack on opponents for what he alleged was hypocrisy for citing concerns about costs and language when, Hendon said, the real issue was that they just don’t like gays and lesbians. Hendon added that it "turns my stomach" to hear "adulterers" oppose the bill.
"Let’s not even play the game. Let’s tell the truth," Hendon said.
One Republican who just won statewide office, Sen. and Treasurer-elect Dan Rutherford (R-Pontiac), spoke eloquently in support of the measure.
"This legislation today - it is opposed by some and it’s uncomfortable for some but the one thing I know about the people of Illinois is that they want fairness and they do not want discrimination," Rutherford said.
Sens. Jeffrey Schoenberg (D-Evanston) and Heather Steans (D-Chicago) cast the measure as a historic step.
"It’s time for us to look history in the eye and not flinch," Schoenberg said.
Steans, as Koehler had, referred to Martin Luther King Jr.s’ famous assertion that the "arc of history" bends toward justice.
"It bends because each of us in our own way puts our hand on that arc and helps bend it toward justice," she said.
After about one and a half hours of discussion, the Senate voted 32-24 in favor of the bill, with one senator voting present, prompting loud cheers from the gallery filled with Equality Illinois officials, board members and other supporters of the legislation.
Quinn, a Catholic who dismissed sharp criticism of his support for the bill from Catholic religious leaders, has not set a date for the bill-signing but his office said Dec. 3 he expects to hold a ceremonial signing in January.