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The facts about civil unions in Illinois

Here are the details on the ins and outs of civil unions in Illinois
By Jason A. Heidemann |

Come Memorial Day, the leather community will wind down another IML weekend by tucking away their assless chaps, which means June 1, the day the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act goes into effect, will be upon us. But before Miss Foozie throws glitter on you and your sweetie and pronounces you partners for life, there are some things worth knowing.

While not marriage, there are nearly 650 benefits associated with civil unions, and importantly, according to bill sponsor and State Rep Greg Harris, include such “critical decision-making” ones as hospital visitation rights, probate rights as a spouse in case of death and legal protection for children. “Listen carefully,” Harris says. “You have to walk into your county clerk’s office and get a license just like a couple getting married. It can be solemnized in your church, but to get the legal rights and responsibilities, you have to apply for the license through the state of Illinois.” Camilla Taylor, senior staff attorney at Lambda Legal, adds that the license (a $15–$40 fee) can be obtained in any county in Illinois, but that you’re required to have your ceremony officiated in the same county where you applied for the license. Benefits begin immediately.

But Taylor also offers some caveats. “There are certainly some folks for whom civil unions are a bad idea,” she says. People living in the U.S. with visas, for example, may want to think twice before exchanging vows. “A legal relationship to another adult that demonstrates your love and commitment may demonstrate a greater intention to stay in the country than the folks reviewing your application to renew your status may be interested in seeing,” she says. Another at-risk group includes couples that wish to adopt a child from anti-LGBT countries. “If you’re in a legal relationship to another adult [of the same sex], it may flag you as gay and lesbian and preclude you participating in that adoption process,” Taylor says. Finally, until Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is officially dead, a civil union, according to Taylor, is a per se violation of the policy.

Also, as marriage equality has made its patchwork march across the U.S, many Illinoisans took advantage of a symbolic ceremony on the shores of P-town or among the rolling hills of Iowa. Whether your intentions were serious or novel, be forewarned: Come June, a marriage or civil union in another jurisdiction automatically solemnizes you here. “Thousands of people are already in civil unions at 12:01am on June 1,” Taylor says.

For many couples and activists, marriage in Illinois is still the top prize. But according to both Harris and Taylor, many balls still hang in the air. The National Organization for Marriage, for example, recently mounted a vicious and successful campaign to not retain three of the Iowa judges who ruled to legalize same-sex marriage in ’09, thus firing a warning shot to fair-minded justices nationwide. Also, pending litigation against DOMA in both Connecticut and Massachusetts and Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the case to overturn Prop 8 in California, could alter the course of marriage equality in the Land of Lincoln.

In the meantime, Illinoisans can take their own steps to move the ball forward. “One of the most important things to do is stand up and be counted and be heard,”Taylor says. To that end, she recommends signing up for the Civil Unions Tracker, a joint effort between Lambda Legal and Equality Illinois that will serve as a legal resource for couples. “It’s important for us to tell the stories of those who encounter problems so we can move toward marriage,” she says. Harris, meanwhile, suggests “doing all the basic work of a democracy” including building support in all 177 legislative districts throughout the state via electing fair-minded legislators, doing petition drives and organizing through our churches, synagogues and mosques. “I would like to see [marriage equality],” he says, “but it takes 60 votes in the House and 30 votes in the Senate and I don’t think we’re there yet.”

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