Lambda Legal, ACLU suits challenge Illinois on marriage equality

Wed. May 30, 2012 2:34 PM by Matt Simonette

camilla taylor, jim darby, patrick bova

photo credit // matt simonette
Chicago, IL - The irony was not lost on Chicagoan Claudia Mercado.

Mercado had just finished the long steps needed to finalize the adoption of her son Indigo, who she was raising with her partner, Anjelica Lopez. The day that the adoption was finalized, Mercado went to pick up a copy of Indigo's revised birth certificate. But she was not allowed to even stand in line for the document since she was not Indigo's birth parent.

"This was supposed to be a moment of joy for us--it quickly turned into a moment of frustration," Mercado said. "...I take them to school. I take them to their medical appointments. They're on my insurance. I read them books every night. But legally I could not stand in that line to pick up that birth certificate."

Mercado and Lopez were among the plaintiffs in two lawsuits filed Wednesday by Lambda Legal and American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of LGBT families seeking full marriage equality in Illinois. The suits were announced at a press conference Wednesday morning at the River North Westin, 340 N. Dearborn.

For couples such as Mercado and Lopez, Illinois' law allowing civil unions for same-sex couples has been a poor substitute for full marriage equality, according to Camilla Taylor, Marriage Project director in Lambda Legal's Midwest Regional Office. The status, she said, has often opened up LGBT families to new instances of discrimination and inferior treatment, she said.

Since the implementation of civil unions last year gay and lesbian couples have "encountered discrimination in every arena--in schools, in workplaces, in businesses and in their everyday interactions with government," Taylor said.

Although civil unions should theoretically afford LGBTs the same rights as marriage, the lawsuits detail a variety of circumstances where the status comes up short. All too often, for example, gays and lesbians find themselves having to explain to ignorant clerks, hospital employees or government bureaucrats what a civil union actually is. LGBTs have to go the extra mile to prove the validity of their unions, while married straight couples almost always have their relationships taken on faith, the suits contend.

"The power of marriage is unparalleled in communicating the importance of your family ties, and that you are a committed family, and that you deserve to be together in times of crisis," Taylor said.

John Knight, dir. of ACLU Illinois' LGBT Project, added, "Denying these and other same-sex couples marriage places them at risk that their relationships will be challenged, even at times of illness or death--when it matters most," Knight said.

The suits challenge the constitutionality of the of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act, which bars same-sex marriages and forbids the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The suits further assert that civil unions fail to "fulfill the equality and liberty and mandates of the Illinois Constitution" and are a "novel, separate and inferior" status for gays and lesbians.

"By excluding these families from marriage and relegating them to civil unions, a lesser status, government has branded these families as inferior and less deserving than other families," Taylor said.

The complaints were filed against Cook County Clerk David Orr. Orr has gone on record in support of marriage equality, but Taylor said that he was the appropriate defendant under the current circumstances.

"The Cook County clerk is the public official who is charged with administering the law and issuing marriage licenses. He has denied marriage licenses based on the marriage ban statute prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying--therefore we must sue the Cook County clerk," she said.

Both Taylor and Knight emphasized that the lawsuits did not reflect a fundamental shift in strategy away from legislative initiatives for marriage equality. Though a marriage equality bill seems unlikely to move in the current House session, Lambda Legal and ACLU expect to maintain concurrent pushes in both legislative and judicial arenas.

"The Legislature remains free to act on marriage--we invite them to do so," Knight said. "But lesbian and gay couples in Illinois have waited long enough."

"The filing of this lawsuit does not relieve legislators of the imperative to do the right thing," Taylor added.

The lawsuit comes just as many high-profile government officials, among them President Obama and Gov. Pat Quinn, have affirmed their support for marriage equality for gays and lesbians. On Wednesday, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-05) released a statement congratulating Lambda Legal and ACLU on the lawsuits.

"I'm proud to support Lambda Legal and the ACLU in this fight to claim their constitutional right to fairness and equality," said Quigley. "One step at a time, through cases like this and the President's recent affirmation of support for marriage equality, we will reach justice. And we can't stop fighting until we do."

Activist Patrick Bova, who has been with his partner Jim Darby for 48 years, said he had worked out a litmus test of sorts for how appealing a civil union might be in the long run. Each time he and Darby go to a straight wedding, he imagines asking the couple whether they'd have a civil union performed instead.

"I'm sure the response would be, 'Why would I want to that?,'" Bova said.