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updated: 12/1/2010 12:41 PM

Civil unions pass Illinois House; Senate president supports measure

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After waiting years for a political climate that would generate enough support, gay-rights activists won one of their biggest fights in history Tuesday when the Illinois house voted to allow civil unions for same-sex couples.

The legislation would give those couples many of the same legal rights married couples have, especially when it comes to health care and end-of-life decisions.

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Civil union supporters pointed to the eventual end of discrimination throughout history against women and minorities as a reason why gay couples should have similar legal rights that heterosexual couples do.

"There comes a time," state Rep. Mark Beaubien, a Barrington Hills Republican, said during debate on the House floor. "And for those of you on the fence, now is the time."

The legislation was approved by a 61-52 vote, receiving mixed reviews from suburban lawmakers. It now moves to the Senate, and a spokeswoman said it could be called for a final vote there Wednesday.

Many Republicans who opposed the plan argued that gay-rights activists wanted to use the approval of civil unions to gain momentum for the approval of gay marriage in the future.

"It's a move toward gay marriage, which I'm against," said state Rep. Randy Ramey, a Carol Stream Republican.

During the debate, the usually raucous and loud House floor was nearly silent as lawmakers paid attention to each speaker. Gov. Pat Quinn, a civil unions supporter, entered the chamber and talked to Democrats as the debate wore on.

Watching the issue closely have been suburban couples who want to get civil unions as soon as possible.

"We'd be among the first in line," said David Foxx of Carpentersville, who has been with his partner Conrad for more than 10 years.

The couple moved to Carpentersville from Dallas about three years ago and have talked about getting a civil union. The couple both changed their last names to perhaps have an easier time jumping legal hurdles should one of them unexpectedly die.

A civil union would alleviate most of those concerns, Foxx said. And while civil unions fall short of gay marriage in his mind, he said they want legal recognition of their relationship.

"We'd be grateful for at least the stepping stone of a civil union," Foxx said.

Approval of civil unions would be the most significant gay-rights law in Illinois since 2005, when lawmakers and then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich barred discrimination against homosexuals in hiring and housing decisions.

Supporters say they like their chances in the Senate, and Democratic Senate President John Cullerton has expressed support.

Recent rumblings about the impending passage of civil union agreements began brewing in October, when Quinn told the Daily Herald editorial board that he believed the measure had enough votes to pass "by the time Christmas comes around."

And House Speaker Michael Madigan said in November that he thought the measure had a "good chance" of passage.

Civil unions would give couples many of the same benefits as marriage including adoption rights, emergency health care decisions and estate planning decisions.

Couples with legally recognized civil unions would be unable to file joint income tax returns, however. And one partner can sponsor another to become an American citizen in a marriage, but not under civil unions.

Sponsor state Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat, introduced the legislation Tuesday afternoon by speaking of historic efforts to end discrimination against other groups.

"Those who stood for justice, for fairness, have been remembered by history as great leaders," Harris said. "They've been remembered by history as being on the right side of justice. Each of us has the chance to be remembered on the right side of justice."

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