Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed two separate lawsuits seeking marriage rights for Illinois gay and lesbians in the Circuit Court of Cook County Wednesday. Together, the two cases represent 25 couples from Evanston to Marion.
The groups argue that barring same-sex couples and their families from marriage is a violation of the state constitution’s guarantee of equal protection and due process.
“By excluding them from marriage, and relegating them to civil unions, our government has marked them as different and worth less than other Illinois families — and that is exactly how others treat them,” National Marriage Project Director for Lambda Legal Camilla Taylor. “They have suffered disrespect in schools, workplaces, hospitals, and in their every-day interactions with government for long enough.”
Taylor, and several of the plaintiffs involved in the two cases said the time for marriage equality in Illinois has come and that the movement has reached a “tipping point”.
Lambda Legal represents 16 couples in their suit and the ACLU of Illinois represents nine. Both suits were filed against Cook County Clerk David Orr in his official capacity. Each couple, some of whom have been together for over 48 years, attempted to get a marriage licence from the clerk’s office. All of them were denied due to the Illinois Marriage and Marriage Dissolution Act, which states that a marriage between two people of the same sex is “contrary to the public policy of this State.”
Orr, who is currently out of the country, has publicly expressed his personal support of marriage equality and his office released a statement this morning reiterating that belief: “The time is long past due for the state of Illinois to allow county clerks to issue marriage license to couples who want to make their commitment. I hope these lawsuits are the last hurdle to achieving equal marriage rights for all.”
The lawsuits come just days before the one-year anniversary of the Illinois Religious Freedom & Civil Unions Act took effect last June 1, and just a day before the current session in the Illinois Legislature ends, where a marriage equality bill failed to gain traction this Spring. Proponents in the legislature said they will continue their efforts to pass a same-sex marriage bill, but now the judicial system will be involved.
“One year ago same-sex couples across the state were joined in civil unions. The experiences of the couples in this suit show the hurt, confusion, and private bias that they have encountered as they have lived their lives,” Taylor said. “These couples and their children share a dream of being part of a married family.”
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama came out in support of marriage equality and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn echoed the sentiment the next day, clarifying his stance. Quinn’s Press Secretary reiterated his support and said that while neither he nor the state are named in the lawsuits, Quinn hopes that marriage equality will be the law in Illinois as soon as possible.
The lead plaintiffs in the Lambda Legal case Jim Darby, 80, and Patrick Bova, 73, of Chicago have together for over 48 years. The two met on the south side of Chicago in the winter of 1963 and have been in a committed relationship since. Last summer, they were “civil unionized” in a Millennium Park ceremony.
Darby made sure he had the legal paperwork necessary to visit Bova in the hospital in case something happened and he needed to visit him, which ended up happening when Bova had heart surgery, he said. He went on to explain how he had to show the paperwork to an administrative nurse at the hospital and was granted access to visit.
“The civil union has been helpful and we are thankful that we have been able to reach that step, but anyone who has a civil union — tell that to anybody you know — ‘We are civil unioned,’ and they’ll go ‘What’s that?’” Darby said. “That’s not a marriage. That’s not the real thing.”
Darby said they often joke about all of the toasters they have bought over the years for their straight friends and family who have been married.
“I want someone to buy me a toaster,” he said.
At least one other plaintiff couple described instances of discrimination and difficulties while trying to visit their spouses at hospitals during a press conference Wednesday. Many explained confusion and discomfort that comes when talked about civil unions with friends, family and peers.
“Creating civil unions — a separate, novel and poorly understood status for gay and lesbian couples — does not honor the devotion of our families, nor fully protect them, but instead sends a powerful message that our families are inadequate and undeserving,” said John Knight, directory of the ACLU of Illinois’ LGBT Project.
Suzanna Hutton and Danielle Cook, who are educators from Bloomington and plaintiffs in the ACLU Illinois suit, explained how they had to make a joke shortly after announcing their civil union to colleagues, saying that their relationship was “civilized.”
Carlos Briones and Richard Rykhus of Evanston were married in Canada and said they have faced similar confusion when it comes to explaining their default civil union status in Illinois to their friends and peers, and have made a point to call one another “husband” so that their 7-year-old son Ty is not confused about their relationship amidst all of the news surrounding the topic of same-sex marriage.
“[Husband] recognizes and reflects our relationship and the commitment that we share,” Rykhus said. “To us, partner does not. Partner sounds transactional, like a business relationship that can take place between strangers and last only until the deal is done. It does not reflect the family that we’ve built.”
Rykhus and Briones, too, have seen challenges in the hospital setting. Rykhus was hospitalized for a minor health issue and made clear to the nurse that Briones was his husband, but the nurse still noted him as his partner. After he insisted the nurse change the word to husband, the nurse agreed. “Words matter,” Rykhus said.
As Ty grows up, the couple increasingly desires their marriage to be recognized by the state.
“The three of us are going to be together forever,” Rykhus said.
Both the plaintiffs and the two organizations anticipate a lengthy timeline for their cases.
“It’s going to be a long road,” said James Bennett, the Midwest regional director at Lambda Legal. “If we look at Iowa, it was close to three years until the Supreme Court ruled in our favor.”
In the meantime, the groups hope to garner new support throughout the state for marriage equality, he said.
“Our job over the next two to three years is to have people meet these couples — and any gay and lesbian couple,” he added. “The more we’re front of our friends and families, people will recognize that we deserve the same protections and benefits.”
Currently, six states and the District of Columbia allow for same-sex couples to marry.