While short of marriage, civil unions allow same-sex couples health insurance, pensions, and other benefits.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed the legislation in January, saying it was a matter of civil rights and basic fairness. The law gives couples many of the same state rights granted to heterosexual couples. Federal rights are not included.
The Rev. Emily Gage, minister of Faith Development at Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., said the new law will have some practical benefits for her and her wife, Karen McMillin. “Practically speaking, I’ll be able to get on her health insurance and I can be an ongoing beneficiary of her state pension. Things like that mean a lot. And symbolically it’s a great feeling to feel like we’re being legitimately recognized by the state.”
She noted that she and McMillin have been registered for years in Cook County as domestic partners. They had a marriage ceremony in Illinois in 2008, and they were also married that year at the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston.
Gage said she knows of a number of couples in Illinois that will have ceremonies now. “I’ve had a number of calls from people asking about that. It will be nice to be able to sign a license. It’s not marriage, but in every state way it is equal.”
P.D. Wadler and his husband, Rick Brown, are members of Second Unitarian Church in Chicago. In 2003 they signed a civil union license in Vermont while on vacation, got married in Canada, and had another ceremony at their church. They were married in Des Moines and plan to do the same thing in Boston in September. On Friday, June 3, Wadler and Brown attended a party at the Chicago History Museum billed as a “celebration of civil unions,” sponsored by The Civil Rights Agenda. They were among several couples who participated in a civil union ceremony during the event.
Wadler works for the city of Chicago. The new law entitles Brown to Wadler’s pension. “I had planned to quit work in March,” said Wadler. “If I had, Rick would have had no legal benefits. Instead, I’m quitting Friday [June 3]. Now, if something happens to me, Rick can collect my pension. That’s the main practical benefit for us.”
He hopes that someday civil unions will evolve into true marriage. “I find myself kind of resentful having a marriage with an asterisk next to it. But I know that freedom comes through a process. Civil unions are an important step, but not the end of the process.”
The Rev. Linda Slabon, of the UU Fellowship of DeKalb, Ill., in an interview on National Public Radio station WNIJ recently, said about the new law, “It’s not the end all, but I’m proud of the people who worked on this. I’m happy we have it. I’m always in the pulpit telling people they’re wonderful. Now it’s great to have that validated by the government.” She and her partner of 20 years will participate in a civil union ceremony later this month with other couples.
The Rev. Charles Ortman, senior minister of the UU Congregation at Montclair, N.J., where civil unions have been in effect since 2008, cautioned that civil unions have not provided equality in New Jersey and they won’t in Illinois. “What we created in New Jersey is something no different than separate but equal. It’s heartbreaking, for example, for kids to have to go to school and tell other kids their parents were ‘civil unionized’ rather than married. It gives kids a lesser status.
“We also found that even though hospitals are bound by our civil union law to provide access to partners, medical personnel were often not up on the law. Couples have been separated here in times of medical emergency, and sometimes it took hours to resolve the issue.”
Ortman served on Gov. Jon Corzine’s Civil Union Review Commission until 2008. He noted that institutions holding pensions may operate under federal rules if they are multistate organizations, and in those cases they may not choose to honor state law.
“Overall it’s not a positive picture, in my opinion. Equality will not come without marriage,” Ortman said. “The alternative is to remove the word marriage from all unions, including heterosexual ones. I do believe that at some point marriage equality will be a reality not only for individual states, but for the country.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.
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