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updated: 12/2/2010 12:13 PM

Senate approves civil unions, it goes to Quinn

Quinn says he'll sign legislation

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  • David, left, and Conrad Foxx have been together for more than 10 years. The Carpentersville couple look forward to their civil union ceremony.

      David, left, and Conrad Foxx have been together for more than 10 years. The Carpentersville couple look forward to their civil union ceremony.
    John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 

SPRINGFIELD -- By next summer, same-sex couples will be able to see their relationships legally recognized for the first time after the Illinois Senate approved civil unions legislation Wednesday and Gov. Pat Quinn pledged he'd sign it.

A civil union would give a gay couple many of the same legal rights married couples have, with some exceptions.

"I'm elated," said David Foxx of Carpentersville, who's been with his partner, Conrad, for more than 10 years.

"It looks like I have a civil union ceremony to plan," he said.

The Senate's approval came via a tight 32-24 vote, and despite fierce opposition from most Republicans.

Some GOP senators argued that civil unions were a stepping stone on the path to gay marriage, which many of them oppose on religious grounds. The law would be effective June 1.

And state Sen. Chris Lauzen, an Aurora Republican, said a state mired in billions of dollars of debt shouldn't be focusing on social issues.

"Why does government have any valid reason to regulate emotional relationships between people?" Lauzen said during debate.

Democrats, though, tried to break the link between civil unions and religion in the debate.

State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat, argued that while religious institutions are vital to the country, equal rights under the law is more important.

"It's a bedrock principle of American democracy," he said.

"It's a fundamental constitutional right."

Talking to reporters after the vote, Quinn said he'll sign the legislation when he "finds a good time" and place.

Quinn, who is Catholic, supported civil unions even though leaders from his own faith opposed the plan strongly.

"I follow my conscience," Quinn said. "My conscience is not kicking me in the shins today," he added.

Quinn said he didn't hear from Cardinal Francis George, head of the Archdiocese of Chicago. George made personal calls to some lawmakers.

Quinn did his own lobbying on the Senate floor as the plan was being debated.

As he did, state Sen. Mike Noland, an Elgin Democrat, argued civil unions were strictly about legal fairness, "nothing more, nothing less."

Many of the senators listened quietly to speeches like Noland's.

Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, sometimes chatted casually with other senators, perhaps comfortable he had the number of votes he needed.

It's unclear if opponents have much recourse after Quinn signs the legislation into law.

The Catholic Conference of Illinois, the lobbying arm of the state's six dioceses, noted in a statement that the legislation has "serious potential for conflict with religious liberty."

David E. Smith, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, said he's talking to lawyers and "exploring options" to see if a lawsuit is possible.

None is planned immediately, he said.

"There's no recourse that we can see," Smith said.

Instead, he said his group will now move to educating local religious groups about the new law, He said they have to be careful to follow the law so they don't get sued themselves.

In their opposition of the plan, Republicans wondered if the new rules would actually cost the state money if same-sex partners of state employees would now receive survivor benefits in state pension plans.

"How can I support it if I don't know how much it will cost Illinois taxpayers?" said state Sen. Dan Duffy, a Lake Barrington Republican.

Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat, told House members yesterday that the state's pension system should not see a surge in costs because health care and survivor benefits have already been extended to same-sex partners of state employees.

Debate over the issue in the Senate and House was mostly cordial, but Quinn's shot back at Republicans who argued it wasn't the right time to debate civil unions demonstrated the firm positions some officials on each side took.

"They're entitled to their opinion," Quinn said, "however wrong it is."