SPRINGFIELD – Gay rights advocates celebrated Wednesday as the Illinois Legislature voted to legalize civil unions, although some wondered whether the measure that the governor is expected to sign will make it easier or harder to someday win approval of same-sex marriage.
The state Senate approved the legislation, 32-24, sending it to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn. It passed despite complaints from some senators that civil unions threaten the sanctity of marriage or increase the cost of doing business in Illinois.
After Quinn signs the measure, gay and lesbian couples will be able to get official recognition from the state and gain many of the rights that accompany marriage – the power to decide medical treatment for an ailing partner, for instance. Illinois law will continue to limit marriage to one man and woman, and the federal government won’t recognize the civil unions at all.
Under the bill, both same sex and opposite-sex couples could enter into civil unions to receive the same benefits, protections and responsibilities under state law that are granted to spouses.
Five states already allow civil unions or their equivalent, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Five other states and Washington, D.C., let gay couples marry outright.
Some supporters of civil unions in Illinois hope they’ll be a step toward full marriage.
“The ultimate goal is not to be separate but equal,” said Jacob Meister, president of The Civil Rights Agenda, a gay rights organization. Meister said civil unions are a necessary compromise because they will provide important protections for gay couples.
But even advocates acknowledge it’s possible that by accepting civil unions now, they may be delaying movement toward being able to marry. The compromise could weaken any arguments that gay people are being treated unfairly by not being allowed to marry.
State Sens. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry, and Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, both voted against the bill.
Althoff said she agreed same sex couples in civil unions should have similar rights as heterosexual married couples such as making medical decisions for one another or purchasing property together.
Althoff however was against the use of the word “marriage” in the bill, she said. The bill originally proposed in the regular session earlier this year, did not make reference to marriage.
“Enough of the individuals I represent in McHenry County have grave reservations and in some cases objections to recognizing gay marriage,” Althoff said.
“This could be interpreted by the courts as gay marriage,” Althoff added.
Duffy said he voted against the bill because of the possible costs civil unions would add to the state’s pension system.
Duffy, who is the minority spokesman for the Pensions and Investments Committee, did not receive any financial estimates on how much this would add to the state’s pension system, he said.
“No one gave me hard figures. I can’t support the bill if I don’t know how much it will cost,” Duffy said. “Can we afford this, and how much will it cost the taxpayer.”
“It’s not my place to tell people how to behave socially,” Duffy added.
The law won’t take effect until June 1, assuming Quinn signs it. Having it take effect immediately would have required approval by three-fifths of legislators.
• Northwest Herald reporter Joseph Bustos contributed to this article.