States Debate Civil Unions, same-sex marriage
SPRINGFIELD — Civil unions become law in Illinois today, but the debate over what legal rights same-sex couples should have continues as a hot topic across the country.
Illinois becomes one of 17 states, plus Washington D.C., that has some level of legal recognition for same-sex couples — whether it’s civil unions, some kind of domestic partnerships or marriage.
Five states and Washington D.C. recognize same-sex marriage.
For the last several years, different states’ courts and legislators have weighed the issue and come to different conclusions. And those debates could last for years.
For example, in Oregon, domestic partnerships have offered protections similar to civil unions since 2007. But some domestic partnership laws such as those in Wisconsin and Hawaii offer limited protection.
Even with strong domestic partnership protections, same-sex couples still run into problems, said Jeana Frazzini, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon.
Oregon’s law allows for domestic partners to be with one another in the hospital and make health care decisions, but Frazzini said many times that right is not upheld because nurses and doctors hear the term partner, which is much more vague than spouse.
“When there is already a system in place that functions for couples that have made a commitment to one another, there is no reason to try to create something separate,” she said.
While she said her organization would continue to fight for gay marriage, it could be difficult to defeat the state’s constitutional language that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
By Jeff Engelhardt
Jack Tweedie, director of Children and Family Services for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said 41 states have — either in law or in the state constitution — language that outlaws gay marriage.
“More states have changed their constitutions or added statutes in the last few years,” Tweedie said.
Changing the constitution is what Carroll Conley suggests lawmakers in each state should pursue.
Conley, the executive director for the Christian Civic League of Maine, said those who do not want to see civil unions evolve into same-sex marriage should become proactive.
Conley helped lead a movement to repeal the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maine, which the state legislature passed in May 2009. Conley and other opponents of same-sex marriage gained 103,000 petition signatures in less than 60 days to get the proposal before voters.
Voters approved, and a same-sex marriage was never conducted in Maine even though lawmakers legalized it.
Conley urged those opposed to same-sex marriage in Illinois to reach out to citizens to do the same.
“People are afraid of being called a bigot or a homophobe and those kinds of things,” Conley said. “They have to risk being called those things if they really believe marriage is a crucial and pivotal part of society.”
Marriage is the ultimate goal for many gay rights activists, though many acknowledge civil unions that were approved in Illinois or domestic partnerships that are popular elsewhere might be more politically palatable for many.
“The first step for full recognition can be civil unions and that’s great,” said Betsy Smith, the executive director of Equality Maine. “We all want full recognition for same-sex relationships and each state is going to take a different path to get there.”