Marriage Equality Stalls in Illinois

Sat. June 1, 2013 12:00 AM
by Waymon Hudson

Marriage Equality Stalls in Illinois

Same-sex couples in Illinois will have to wait even longer for equal rights. In a move that shocked many community members and advocates, the Illinois House ended its current session without calling a vote on the Marriage Equality Bill, SB10. The Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act will now sit in legislative limbo until the fall's "veto session," where bill sponsor Representative Greg Harris has said he will once again try to put it forward. This current failure in the Illinois General Assembly follows a successful Valentine's Day vote by the Illinois Senate of 34 to 21, as well as vocal support from Governor Pat Quinn, who has said he would sign the bill into law.

A visibly emotional and upset Rep Greg Harris made the announcement from the house floor, saying the 60 votes needed for passage simply weren't there and that colleagues had asked for "more time" for a vote. "I have never been sadder to accept such a request," Harris said through tears, "In the meantime, I apologize to the families who were hoping to wake up full and equal citizens."
(Watch Rep. Harris' announcement)

The stalled marriage bill comes at a time when Democrats hold a veto-proof majority of 71 Dems to just 47 Republicans. Yet pressure from the politically powerful Catholic Church in Illinois as well as some conservative African-American clergy seemed to have peeled off enough support from the bill among some conservative-leaning downstate Democrats, a portion of Black Caucus members, as well as Republicans for the needed 60 votes to fall short.

The current defeat also comes after an earlier unsuccessful attempt by marriage equality advocates in Illinois to pass the marriage equality bill during the lame-duck legislative session in early January. At that time, the bill was successfully voted out of the Senate Executive Committee, but was not considered by the full chamber due to procedural hurdles.

It seems the long road to full equality in "The Prairie State" will continue to wind on, at least for now, as marriage equality supporters look ahead to both the veto session in the house and the current marriage lawsuit making its way through the Illinois court system brought by Lambda Legal and the ACLU.

Civil Unions: Separate and Unequal

In 2011, Illinois passed strong civil unions, a so-called "everything but marriage" law, through the state legislature called the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act. The act reads broadly about what it provided for same-sex couples, stating:

"This Act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote its underlying purposes, which are to provide adequate procedures for the certification and registration of a civil union and provide persons entering into a civil union with the obligations, responsibilities, protections, and benefits afforded or recognized by the law of Illinois to spouses. (750 ILCS 75/5)"

In short, anyone in a civil union got the same state benefits as someone who is married. The act even put in purposefully broad language about being "liberally construed" to implement the purpose and spirit of the law.

Yet almost immediately, problems with civil unions arose. There was a drawn-out legal battle between Catholic Charities and the state of Illinois over the $30 million in taxpayer dollars that the religious charity received for foster care and adoption services, and their refusal to grant those services to same-sex couples in civil unions, which ended in a loss for the church. This led to a growing tension between the church hierarchy and advancing civil rights. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago compared the city's gay pride parade to the Ku Klux Klan, sparking outrage, protests, and an eventual half-apology from the cardinal.

There was also the case of the Springfield, Illinois Joint Labor/Management Insurance Committee deciding not to cover health benefits for the civil union partners of city employees. The committee used the different relationship status of same-sex couples and married heterosexual couples to carve out the exemption to civil union spouses. They cited the benefits for same-sex couples being too costly, which is an argument that would never be accepted when applied to a more universally understood institution like full marriage. Public outrage eventually made them change their decision and cover all couples equally.

Perhaps the most illuminating example is the confusing decision from the Illinois Department of Revenue saying that couples in civil unions "may not file joint Illinois returns" and that the new civil unions law "did not change the Illinois income tax laws." After much pushing from legislators and the community, the department reversed their decision, allowing same-sex couples in civil unions to file jointly in the state. Yet this confusion within the state government itself over the law shows just how easy it is for civil unions to fall short.

In a show of just how unequal civil unions were, 25 gay and lesbian couples represented by Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois brought a lawsuit seeking to overturn Illinois' 16-year-old ban on same-sex marriages. Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan decided not to defend the state's ban on same-sex marriage and agreed with the lawsuit that the ban is unconstitutional. Cook County Clerk David Orr, who is the subject of the original suits, also agreed that the law was unconstitutional and refuses to defend it as well. A judge granted two downstate Illinois county clerks permission to defend the ban. The Thomas Moore Society, a conservative Chicago-based not-for-profit law firm that opposes gay marriage, filed that request to intervene on behalf of Effingham County Clerk Kerry Hirtzel and Tazewell County Clerk Christie Webb.

Illinois State Representative Greg Harris has made clear that the current civil unions law does not offer full equality. "I think the lawsuits that we are seeing move through the courts right now are showing clearly that... all over the state, there are numerous instances where families are being denied their basic rights under civil unions," Harris said.

In fact, research has shown that in area after area -- whether tax law, health insurance, hospitalization, family issues, personal finance or actions by state and local officials -- same-sex couples, even ones in civil unions, are treated unequally or denied their basic rights, or singled out for discrimination.

These are all glaring examples of why separate is never equal and why moving toward marriage equality is vitally necessary, even if difficult. Civil unions have created a lower class of recognition that, while providing much-needed rights and protections, reinforced the idea that LGBT relationships were less than their heterosexual counterparts. Creating this new, separate, and different level of rights and recognition among committed couples only created further inequity, confusion, and discord.

Civil unions were considered a first step, but never an end goal.

Strong Opposition

Among the strongest opposition to marriage equality was the highly influential and politically powerful Catholic Church. In September of 2012, the Catholic Conference of Illinois announced the formation of a "Defense of Marriage" department, whose sole purpose was to fight any future attempts to legalize same-sex marriage in the state. The stated goal of the department was to protect the "stature of the nuclear family -- which provides love, stability and confidence to children, as well as organization to society." The "Defense of Marriage" department started throwing out incendiary (and scientifically unfounded) claims about the "dangers" of marriage equality: "The effects [of same-sex marriage] are evident in the performance of children in school, in truancy and crime rates, and in an ailing culture that too often values feeling good over self-giving, and individuality over the common good."

Even then-Pope Benedict himself continued the attacks on marriage equality, saying that gay marriage was a threat to the traditional family that undermined "the future of humanity itself."

And the Catholic Church wasn't alone in its opposition. Anticipating the fight over passage of a marriage equality bill, the "Coalition to Protect Children and Marriage" was unveiled by equality opponents on December 18, 2012. It included the extreme anti-equality organizations like Illinois Family Institute, Concerned Christian Americans, Eagle Forum of Illinois, Illinois Citizens for Life PAC, Abstinence and Marriage Partnership, Lake County Right to Life, and Family-Pac.

A group of of conservative African-American clergy also provided fierce opposition. Bishop Larry Trotter, co-chair of the African American Clergy Coalition, released a statement applauding the bill's current failure, writing, "Today our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has won! Pastor James Meeks, Bishop Lance Davis and I are so proud of the God fearing Black Caucus members who withstood the pressure of the LGBT forces and allowed God's word concerning marriage to remain between one man and one woman in Illinois."

But even this concerted and powerful religious-based opposition, though seemingly successful in swaying some members of the Illinois House, wasn't enough to stop full marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples from enjoying majority support from Illinois voters.

A Right Delayed, A Right Denied

The Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act has far-reaching implications for Illinois' same-sex couples. Under the bill, marriage in Illinois would have changed from an act between "a man and a woman" to one "between two people." What the law means is simple: ALL couples in Illinois would have the same rights and responsibilities that come with full marriage equality. No one will have to awkwardly say that they are "civil unioned," then explain what that means to those who don't know. Couples would all just be married, gay or straight. The confusion over the "separate and unequal" status of same-sex couples, and the problems we have seen under the civil unions law, will come to an end within the state.

These civil unions could have been converted to full marriages within a year of the law going on the books, with out-of-state marriages being recognized immediately. And despite the objections and scare-tactics used by the religious based opposition, the legislation would not have required religious organizations to solemnize a marriage of gay couples, nor would church officials have been forced to allow their facilities to be used by same-sex couples seeking to marry.

The new law could also have meant a financial boon for the state. A recent study from The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law found that extending equal marriage to same-sex couples could add up to $103 million to state economy and $8.5 million in new state and local tax revenue.

Marriage equality in Illinois would have also had far broader impact on same-sex couples in the state as the U.S. Supreme Court takes on the constitutionality of the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act," which denies same-sex couples federal benefits equal to their married heterosexual counterparts. The court is expected to rule in June, long before the veto session of the Illinois House. If the act is struck down, the federal government will recognize the marriages of same-sex couples, giving gay couples the full array of rights available to married heterosexual couples. If the law is overturned, couples in Illinois could have seen full marriage equality both within the state and federally in the same year.

But for now, same-sex couples in Illinois will have to continue the long process of watching legislators, judges, politicians, priests, organizations, and every other possible person weigh in on what their relationships should or shouldn't be. They will have to continue to navigate the maze of what it means to be a same-sex couple simply wishing to declare their love—and access the rights and responsibilities that come with marriage.

Related coverage: Illinois House session ends without vote on marriage equality bill