Gay couples say civil union ceremony step toward equality
BY STEVE METSCH firstname.lastname@example.org May 31, 2011 7:34PM
Law at a glance
What it is
The Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act allows same-sex couples to enter into civil unions granting them many rights already afforded married couples. Illinois law will continue to limit marriage to one man and one woman, and civil unions still are not recognized by the federal government.
What it does
Civil unions give couples the right to make funeral and end-of-life decisions, the right to share a room in a nursing home, automatic hospital visitation, adoption and parental rights, pension benefits, inheritance rights, the right to decide how to dispose of a partner’s remains, and the right not to testify against each other in court. Civil unions are not just for gays, said Courtney Greve, a spokeswoman for Cook County Clerk David Orr. Straight couples, most often seniors, are also expected to seek licenses in cases such as when a partner is in danger of losing insurance benefits on a late spouse’s pension, she said.
When it goes into effect
As of today, couples may get a license for a civil union only in the county where the ceremony is to be performed. Couples then must wait at least a day before being allowed to enter into a civil union. The license expires 60 days after being issued. The license fee is $35 in Cook County; $4 in Will County. Cook County Clerk David Orr will give the first couple in line today a gift package. Other gifts that have been donated will be distributed by a raffle, Greve said.
If already married
Marriages of same-sex couples in other states are acknowledged in Illinois and negate the need for a civil union.
Compiled by Steve Metsch and AP
Updated: September 29, 2011 12:48AM
With 30 of their closest friends and relatives on hand, and with Chicago’s stunning skyline as a backdrop, Mary Bernas and Hiliana Leon plan to exchange vows at a June 25 commitment ceremony at the John Hancock Observatory.
Then there will be a big celebration and dinner at a downtown restaurant.
But today is a big day for the New Lenox women, too.
Bernas and Leon and scores of other same-sex couples across Illinois are expected to apply for civil union licenses as a new state law takes effect, bestowing on them rights already granted to married couples.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed the historic civil unions legislation into law in January, making Illinois the seventh state, along with the District of Columbia, to give same-sex couples significant legal protections.
They include the power to decide medical care for an ailing partner, the right to inherit a partner’s property, get full hospital visitation rights and be considered next of kin.
Couples were expected to line up at 6 a.m. today outside the Daley Center in Chicago, waiting to get their licenses, said Courtney Greve, a spokeswoman for Cook County Clerk David Orr. In Will County, the licenses will cost $4, compared to $35 in Cook County.
A civil union is not the same as a gay marriage — which supporters think will be allowed one day — but it gives Leon, 39, and Bernas, 44, both teachers, a lot less to worry about.
Bernas was planning to pay the $35 fee for a license at the Markham courthouse today in preparation for their big day.
“This is one step closer to equality for gay people. It’s a step in the right direction,” said Bernas, an teacher at Bremen High School in Midlothian. “The state is acknowledging this type of couple is a legitimate couple. It’s wonderful for the youth of today to grow up in a state that recognizes that. It means people will talk about it as if it’s commonplace. It won’t be, ‘Hush-hush, let’s guess if someone is with someone’ anymore.”
She hopes it leads to “a more open society.”
Among those opposed to the legalization of civil unions is the Illinois Family Institute.
“Why is this necessary?” executive director Dave Smith said. “There’s a reason government has recognized the institution of marriage. Having a mother and father at home is the ideal environment to raise the next generation of children.”
Smith said his group won’t picket the county clerk’s office today because the IFI’s opposition to the law already is well-known.
Another of the law’s opponents, the Catholic diocese in Rockford, announced last week it will end its state-funded adoption and foster-care program rather than comply with the law, which would require it to place children with gay or unmarried couples.
Church officials say other dioceses could make similar decisions after the law takes effect, and Smith thinks costly lawsuits will be filed if a gay civil union couple is told it can’t adopt a child.
“It’s a political agenda. They want to make examples of us and use the heavy hand of government,” Smith said of civil union supporters.
Same-sex couples “don’t need civil unions,” said Smith, who suggested they “get power of attorney.”
Bernard Cherkasov, the CEO of Equality Illinois, the state’s largest gay advocacy group, expects at least 30 couples to take part in public commitment ceremonies Thursday at Chicago’s Millennium Park. Quinn also will be on hand.
Illinois is the eighth state with civil unions. Another six allow gay marriage.
“That’s 14 of 51, counting the District of Columbia, but we still have a long way to go,” Cherkasov said.
While campaigning for civil unions, Cherkasov said he seldom found opposition.
“People start at different places, but when they think about it, and when they hear about a couple in a longtime, committed, loving relationship, they support it,” he said.