Illinois Lawmakers Considering Civil Unions

Correction May 26, 2009

We incorrectly referred to a gay rights group as "Equity Illinois." It is actually called "Equality Illinois."

Gay and lesbian couples in Illinois looking to get married can do so in the neighboring state of Iowa. Illinois is home to a number of gay rights groups, but the state is far from approving same-sex marriages. A bill that would legalize civil unions awaits a vote in the Illinois General Assembly.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Same-sex couples from Illinois are getting married. The first thing they do is drive to Iowa where same-sex marriage became legal last month. And the couples on the roads are adding to the debate of what Illinois should do.

Here's NPR's Cheryl Corley.

Magistrate DENNIS JASPER (Iowa): Are you gentlemen ready?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TOM HOWE-DUFF: I'm so excited.

Mr. CHAD GEARIG: I've been ready for a couple of years now.

Magistrate JASPER: That's good - that's good.

CHERYL CORLEY: In a small law library, Iowa Magistrate Dennis Jasper is conducting a marriage ceremony for Tom Howe-Duff and Chad Gearig. The two Chicagoans drove three hours west crossing the Mississippi river to get married in Bettendorf, Iowa.

Magistrate JASPER: Repeat after me. To my wedded partner, I give you this ring.

CORLEY: Chad and Tom stand in a corner of the room surrounded by shelves of law books. They hold hands, repeat their vows, and exchange rings. Just about everyone in the room starts tearing up, including the magistrate, who's conducting his first wedding for a gay couple.

Magistrate JASPER: Congratulations. You may now kiss your wedded partner.

(Soundbite of kissing)

Magistrate JASPER: And now everyone, I'd like to introduce to you the married couple, Tom and Chad Gearig-Howe.

(Soundbite of laughter and clapping)

CORLEY: The Gearig-Howes had planned on getting married in California. That changed when California voters approved a measure outlawing same sex marriages. So last month, after Iowa's Supreme Court recognized gay matrimony, Chad says he and Tom, his partner of four years, decided to travel to the state right next door.

Mr. GEARIG: The biggest thing for us is we're doing this for us. It's the progression in our relationship. But the reason we're not waiting for Illinois is that, if it does pass in Illinois, we don't have to do it again, it's automatically recognized.

CORLEY: Five states have legalized gay marriage. In Illinois, the latest poll by Equality Illinois, a gay rights group, showed residents in the state opposed gay marriage by a margin of 49 to 38 percent. Public policy director Rick Garcia says he hopes the Iowa ruling will help persuade Illinois lawmakers to support a compromised civil union bill.

Mr. RICK GARCIA (Equality Illinois, Public Policy Director): We've looked at this for a long time here in Illinois. Do we do as some states have done, bring a case before our Supreme Court that these couples are not treated fairly and equitably under our constitution? And what we've learned is that Iowa has a very strong equal protection clause in its constitution, and Illinois doesn't have that same kind of language and it isn't as strong.

CORLEY: So for months, gay rights activists and other supporters have lobbied Illinois lawmakers, urging them to support a civil union bill which narrowly survived a committee vote. The sponsor, openly gay State Representative Greg Harris, says it would give unmarried couples, gay or straight, some of the same benefits that spouses receive under Illinois law.

State Representative GREG HARRIS (Democrat, Illinois): Talking to my colleagues about the House and Senate, there does not seem to be a lot of groundswell for support for same-sex marriage, but people are willing to look at civil unions because they understand that people need certain basic rights of fairness in things like healthcare decision making, hospital visitation, you know, those kind of things.

CORLEY: One group working to defeat the bill is the Illinois Family Institute. The organization tried unsuccessfully a few years ago to get an advisory question on Illinois ballots asking voters if Illinois should define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Executive Director David E. Smith says the Family Institute won't try that approach again, but it is lobbying lawmakers too.

Mr. DAVID E. SMITH (Executive Director, Illinois Family Institute): We're trying to make it clear to lawmakers that a vote for civil unions is a vote for gay marriage, it will lead to it.

CORLEY: And Smith says gay couples can use gay rights groups like Lambda Legal to advise them on how to protect their relationships outside of marriage.

Mr. SMITH: Do you think they could employ resources to help their constituents with drafting powers of attorney so that partners could be able to transfer property rights, inheritance rights, visitation rights, all those things?

CORLEY: Michelle and Jennifer Ballad-Adwid(ph) say with marriage, those are automatic rights. They've been together 14 years, had a civil union ceremony in Vermont in 2000, and were fortunate, they say, to have the time and money to legally protect their relationship. Still, says Jennifer...

Ms. JENNIFER BALLAD-ADWID: Unless you can say this is my spouse, you can be denied a lot of rights.

CORLEY: But Jennifer and Michelle say they have no plans to marry in Iowa despite its proximity.

Ms. JENNIFER BALLAD-ADWID: No.

Ms. MICHELLE BALLAD-ADWID: No, we're waiting for marriage.

Ms. JENNIFER BALLAD-ADWID: We're waiting for Illinois.

Ms. MICHELLE BALLAD-ADWID: It's a matter of Illinois is our home and we've had that experience already of going to one state having, you know, some rights, and then coming back here to Illinois and it not really have any meaning. It would be the same.

CORLEY: And while they and other gay couples say they are confident that same-sex marriage will eventually come to Illinois, the battle now is over civil unions and there are only a few days left in this legislative session. Gay activists are hopeful, by week's end, the Illinois civil union bill will be approved. Opponents with the Illinois Family Institute say the votes just aren't there.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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