A group of Illinois legislators and civil rights organizations has started holding meetings to strategize on moving from civil unions to full marriage equality for LGBT couples. Illinois state representatives Greg Harris, Deb Mell, Ann Williams, Kelly Cassidy, and Sara Feigenholtz, and state senator Heather Steans, as well as groups like Equality Illinois, Log Cabin Republicans, the ACLU, Lambda Legal, The Civil Rights Agenda, and the Human Rights Campaign, are looking at how to move forward legislatively on marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Representative Greg Harris told the Windy City Times that the legislation wouldn't be introduced until 2013 at the earliest, and he gave some insight into how difficult it could be: "I do not delude myself into thinking this will be an easy process. But we need to take the first step. We have to be ready to stand up and defend the gains that we've made and to look toward the next steps."
The road ahead for marriage equality in the state does indeed look difficult, but not impossible.
Among the strongest opposition is the highly influential and politically powerful Catholic Church. In September the Catholic Conference of Illinois announced the formation of a "Defense of Marriage" department, whose sole purpose is to fight any future attempts to legalize same-sex marriage in the state. The stated goal of the department is 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 has already 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."
The Catholic Church's hostility toward equal rights for LGBT people in the state has indeed been ratcheting up. We've seen the drawn-out legal battle between Catholic Charities and the state of Illinois over the organization's state-funded adoption and foster care contracts, and their refusal to grant those services to same-sex couples in civil unions, which ended in a loss for the church. This has led to a growing tension between the church hierarchy and advancing civil rights. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago recently compared the city's gay pride parade to the Ku Klux Klan, sparking outrage, protests, and an eventual half-apology from the cardinal. Even Pope Benedict himself has continued the attacks on marriage equality, saying this week that gay marriage was a threat to the traditional family that undermined "the future of humanity itself."
With well-organized and well-funded opposition like this, pushing for legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry will be difficult. But there are concrete examples that can be used to educate the public and legislature about the basic unfairness of the separate and unequal status that civil unions create for gay couples in the state.
The previously mentioned fight between Catholic Charities and the state over the $30 million in taxpayer dollars that Catholic Charities received from the state of Illinois for foster care and adoption services was based on excluding same-sex couples in civil unions.
There was also the case of the Springfield, Ill. 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 recently 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.
These are all glaring examples of why separate is never equal and why moving toward marriage equality is vitally necessary, if difficult. Civil unions create a lower class of recognition that, while providing much-needed rights and protections, reinforces the idea that LGBT relationships are less than their heterosexual counterparts. Creating this new, separate, and different level of rights and recognition among committed couples only creates further inequity, confusion, and discord, even internally among states that seek to expand rights.
Civil unions were a first step, but never an end goal. It will be a hard fight forward against powerful and organized opposition in many forms, but it is a fight worth having.