Illinois civil unions not equal to marriages, study finds

Rep. Greg Harris.

As the Illinois civil unions law turned one June 1, the nearly 5,000 couples throughout the state who registered for a license over the past year have encountered many legal and everyday life obstacles that reminds them a civil union is different from marriage – the opposite intent of the legislation.

The findings released Friday by a statewide LGBT advocacy group show couples united by civil unions in Illinois faced unequal treatment when filing for taxes, obtaining health insurance, buying a house and even getting a civil union license in some of the 102 state counties.

“As we feared, civil unions have not turned out to be equal to civil marriages,” Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, said in a statement. “In area after area, couples were either treated unequally or denied their rights. As we learned in history, separate does not make equal.”

The Equality Illinois study found dozens of couples united by civil unions experienced discrimination by public and private agents across the state, who seem unfamiliar with the rights and obligations protected by the law.

Couples reported having difficulty when applying for a birth certificate in both parents’ names, picking up or dropping off a prescription for a sick civil union spouse at a pharmacy, and said individuals and institutions denied them services alleging civil unions is not equivalent to marriage.

“We both know that the civil union is not the same as a marriage and are looking forward to the day we can be married under all laws,” Michael Hall, who entered into a civil union in March with his partner of five years Gregory Perrine, said. “We both feel as if we have been married for years and the addition of a piece a paper does little to affect how we feel about each other.”

Hall said the civil union license does give him and his civil union spouse piece of mind “should anything happen to either of us, at least in Illinois and other states that recognize our union.”

Acknowledging the law as an advancement toward equality, but cautious about its separate status when compared to marriage, Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), a long-time advocate for LGBT rights in Springfield, said the focus now is to gather support for same-sex marriage in the state.

“The civil union law was a remarkable first step,” Harris said. “But some of the families who benefited from the legislation have faced unequal treatment, which reconfirms separate is not equal.”

On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and the New York-based Lambda Legal filed lawsuits on behalf of 25 couples in the state seeking to legalize same-sex marriage in Illinois. The couples in both lawsuits tried to apply for marriage licenses in Cook County but were denied.

Both legal actions are a challenge to a state law that defines a marriage as between a man and a woman. According to the lawsuits, the Illinois Constitution guarantees the right for same-sex couples to marry under due process and equal protection clauses.

The 25 couples and the civil rights groups who filed the lawsuits appeared to try to build on the momentum brought by President Barack Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage.

In Illinois, 4,910 couples registered for civil union licenses in the last 12 months. Cook County had by far the largest number of civil unions: 2,508; followed by the five collar counties, which together had 845. Other 1,557 licenses were issued in the state. Civil unions took place in all but eight counties in the state.

“Civil unions in the state have served to show they do not equal to civil marriage,” Rep. Harris said. “It’s a teaching moment for many.”