Civil unions expected to come to a vote today in Illinois

Tue. November 30, 2010 4:22 AM by Kevin Wayne

Religious fervor reaches high pitch as civil unions vote nears

Chicago, IL - The Illinois General Assembly is expected to vote today on same-sex civil unions legislation in what gay rights advocates expect to be a very close vote. Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan has said he expects state lawmakers to approve the bill and the governor has voiced his support.

The Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act (SB 1716), which is co-sponsored by openly gay Illinois State Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), has come under fire from conservative groups, including the Catholic Conference of Illinois and Washington D.C.-based National Organization for Marriage (NOM), which have lobbied hard against the bill.

Cardinal Francis George, the head of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, said, "The enactment of marriage-like benefits in civil union legislation will intensify the legal attack on marriage."

The crucial piece of legislation does not recognize same-sex marriages, but will provide the same spousal rights to same-sex partners when it comes to surrogate decision-making for medical treatment, survivorship, adoptions, and accident and health insurance. The bill would not force religious denominations to recognize or sanctify relationships they oppose.

Requesting anonymity, a source in Springfield tells that State Sen. and Rev. James Meeks, who represents the 15th District on Chicago's south side, has allegedly been working behind the scenes with other African-American ministers to derail passage in the House as an effort to keep the legislation from making it to the Senate, thus relieving the prominent minister from declaring his vote, for or against, on record.

"Rev. Meeks has been playing fast and loose with the LGBT community," said the source.

The 54-year-old Meeks, who is making a run for Chicago mayor, reached out to influential members of Chicago's LGBT community in October after concerns were raised over his anti-gay stance. tried unsuccessfully Monday afternoon to reach Rev. Meeks for comment.

Unlike Meeks, several other high-profile Chicago mayoral candidates have endorsed the bill, including former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun and Gery Chico.

"I hope all members of the state legislature will vote for the civil unions bill," Braun told late Monday night. "I hope that the bill passes."

"This is a civil rights issue," Chico told supporters on Sunday at an event in Lakeview.

As the probable Tuesday vote looms, Equality Illinois and The Civil Rights Agenda (TCRA) continued to lobby legislators in support of the bill late Monday. Both advocacy groups have returned to the Capitol early Tuesday morning.

"We are just a few votes away in the House for victory," Equality Illinois public policy director Rick Garcia told Monday night. "We are working this evening in firming up our yes votes and making sure that all of our yes votes are on the floor tomorrow."

"I'm feeling good about this," said Jacob Meister, TCRA Board Chairman.

Meister's group along with LGBT change have contacted over 16,000 LGBT and allied voters, through an aggressive lobbying project over the last month. He said they have successfully been able to reach into "swing and persuadable districts" through what he describes as "sophisticated micro-targeting."

If the bill passes it will go directly to the Illinois Senate for concurrence where it is expected to pass. Gov. Quinn has promised to sign the legislation into law.

Gay rights activists continue to encourage the LGBT community to contact their legislators on Tuesday morning by calling the Illinois Capitol switchboard at 217-782-2000. EQIL has also established a hotline to help people identify their legislators, that number is 773-477-7173.

California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington have passed laws allowing same sex civil unions. Same-sex couples can marry in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Washington D.C. and Iowa.