Civil unions bill progresses in Springfield

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday April 23, 2009

As same-sex couples in Iowa begin to legally marry today, Illinois activists continue to prepare for the possibility of civil unions in the Land of Lincoln.

The House Youth and Family Committee narrowly approved the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act (House Bill 2234) in early March. State Rep. Greg Harris [D-Chicago] introduced the bill. And it remains on the House calendar.

Springfield lawmakers could vote on HB 2234 by the end of the year. In the meantime, proponents and opponents alike continue to lobby legislators and garner support from constituents.

Harris told EDGE he feels encouraged about the bill's passage. He cited what he described as a sense of momentum from constituents--and the Iowa Supreme Court's decision late last month.

"Community members are so excited to see not only states on the coasts, but also states in the heartland, becoming more progressive on the issue and it's really heartening for them," Harris explained. "The bottom line is that the bill is progressing well. I believe that [recent events in] Iowa and Vermont show which way the country is heading."

Equality Illinois executive director Rick Garcia echoed Harris' sentiments.

"We are very optimistic that this will be voted on and put through by the House by the end of the year."

"We are very optimistic that this will be voted on and put through by the House by the end of the year," Garcia said. "I think that, with what happened especially in Iowa, a lot of people see that same-sex marriage really could happen here in Illinois, as well."

If passed, HB 2234 would allow couples in civil unions to receive the "same legal obligations, responsibilities, protections and benefits afford or recognized by the law of Illinois to spouses." These include hospital visitation, health care decision-making, survivor benefits, shared nursing home living and the authority to oversee funeral arrangements. The bill also contains a provision that would allow religious institutions to abstain from performing same-sex unions.

HB 2234 still faces strong opposition from an alliance of religious congregations and conservative organizations. One Church of Latter Day Saints congregation urged its members to stand against the bill via e-mail. The Illinois Family Institute, based in Carol Stream, has actively reached out to faith communities with church bulletins, mailing lists and phone campaigns.

IFI executive director David E. Smith expressed doubt the bill will pass. He stressed, however, his organization has not increased its efforts in response to Iowa, Vermont and other states in which legislators continue to debate marriage for same-sex couples.

"We know that this doesn't have the votes it needs to pass the House," Smith said. "We are still doing the same things we've always done, reaching out and educating churches and talking to people of faith about how same-sex marriage would affect their lives."

An IFI flyer titled "The Truth About So-Called 'Civil Unions'" claims civil unions are simply a facade for marriage that will "change the institution itself." It further contends civil unions will lay the groundwork for the legalization of polygamy and teach public school children religious opposition to homosexuality is "hateful and bigoted."

In spite of opposition to HB 2234, more than 200 people from the Chicago area are expected to travel to Springfield next Wednesday to take part in Equality Illinois' Union Lobby Day. This day provides activists and others to directly speak with their legislators about the bill and lobby for its passage.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.

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