Aurora couple joins suit to overturn gay marriage ban
Kirsten Lyonsford describes a sort of "flash" she had 13 years ago on her first date with the woman she now considers her wife.
Kirsten, then Kirsten Lyons, had just sat down to lunch at a suburban Red Lobster with Tanya Ford, the co-worker she'd met a few days before at an AT&T training seminar.
"Seriously, when we sat down at the table, I looked at Tanya, and I got a glimpse of the future," the Aurora woman, now 35, says. "I saw us way down the road with kids, grandkids, the whole works. And I thought, 'Oh gosh, this is kind of scary.' I'd never felt that kind of thing before."
Now, she says, casting a smile at Tanya, seated to her left, "we're here."
Ten years after they exchanged vows in a wedding ceremony in Villa Park, they are among 25 couples who filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of a state law that bans them from legally marrying.
Those suits, in turn, have set in motion a flurry of activity from conservative groups who are preparing to defend the ban in court.
For as much as activists and couples like the Lyonsfords feel the time has come to allow gays to marry legally, opponents are redoubling their efforts to uphold tradition.
The Illinois Family Institute, for instance, is working with the conservative Christian group the Alliance Defense Fund to intervene in the court case, and institute Director David E. Smith said he hopes the Alliance will file a formal request this week.
"I'm shocked by how fast this all is moving," he said.
On a recent sunny weekday morning, the Lyonsfords sat on their patio, watching their children, 9-year-old Andrea and 7-year-old Zachary, play in the backyard.
They described their daily life — volunteering at the children's school, juggling the demands of work and home, attending First Congregational Church in Naperville — like that of any other family's.
Gentle admonishments to Andrea and Zachary — "Stay out of the wood chips! Now, go wash your hands, then come back out here." — occasionally interrupted those trains of thought.
"It's been a marriage," Tanya, 47, said. "We've had our ups, good times, bad times, job losses, kids, trips, but we've stuck together."
Every year on the Lyonsfords' Oct. 5 anniversary, Tanya said, she thanks Kirsten "for the journey."
That precise description of their commitment explains why the pair decided to sign on to one of two lawsuits challenging the state law, sponsored in 1996 by then-suburban state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald of Inverness.
The Lyonsfords are among nine plaintiffs in an American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois' complaint. Another 16 couples are part of a suit by gay rights group Lambda Legal.
The ACLU group's complaint, filed last month, asks the court "to perform what is perhaps its most solemn and sacred duty — ensuring that fundamental rights are extended to all Illinoisans."
Illinois enacted its civil unions law last June, a move approximately 5,000 couples have taken advantage of so far, including 2,336 couples in Cook County alone, according to county clerks.
Civil unions give couples many of the same legal rights married couples have, including emergency health care and estate planning decisions with a partner.
Yet, couples in the lawsuits say the limited rights and protections make them feel like second-class citizens entering a legal agreement that many institutions they deal with do not fully understand.
The Lyonsfords — who merged their last names when they married, bought a home together and fostered, then adopted, Andrea and Zachary together — said they have never been never interested in obtaining anything other than a marriage license in their own state.
"I felt (the civil unions statute) was a step in the right direction. It wasn't what I truly wanted, but for some people, it's better than nothing," Tanya Lyonsford said.
On the heels of Vice President Joe Biden's comments that he was "comfortable" with same-sex marriage, President Barack Obama announced his support. Days afterward, Gov. Pat Quinn followed suit. Last Thursday, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez filed a motion formally challenging the constitutionality of the ban with Cook County Clerk David Orr's office, saying she will not defend the suit.
Six states, as well as the District of Columbia, allow gay marriage.
Yet, several groups are actively working to make sure Illinois does not become the next.
"We said very clearly in the debate over civil unions, this is embarking on a changing of our culture," said Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, the lobbying arm for the state's six dioceses.
The conference, Gilligan said, believes that "marriage is by nature, the union between a man and a woman."
Despite efforts in civil law to change the definition, "we feel by nature, we can't change nature," he said.
For his part, state Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat, the architect of the successful effort to legalize civil unions, said existing law does not go far enough. The past year has made clear that "there is still major inequality" in the state, he said.
Legislation that would eliminate language permitting those inequalities failed to move in the state legislature during the session.
"We still invite (lawmakers) to meet in Springfield tomorrow and pass this bill," Ed Yohnka, spokesman for ACLU Illinois said. "But the truth is, sometimes when it's taking political leaders a little longer to move, you go to the courts."
Harris points to other major civil rights decisions that have been decided through the courts, including 1954's Brown v. the Board of Education in Topeka, Kan., a case that successfully integrated public schools.
And surrounded by her family in her Aurora backyard, Tanya Lyonsford likes to think this case could have similarly broad repercussions.
"I had a conversation with my mom the other day, and she was talking about how proud she was of us, how it really takes guts to stand up for what you believe in," she said. "When I think of it that way, it's pretty cool."
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