What We Can Learn from Illinois

This week, Illinois’ Governor Pat Quinn signed into law the Illinois Religious Freedom Protections and Civil Unions Act passed by the state’s legislature in December.  By creating civil union, a non-marriage marital status for certain couples, Illinois has brought the number of Americans living in jurisdictions that provide some measure of respect to same-sex couples under the law to 40 percent.  Ten years ago, that number was almost zero.

Also in the last decade, five states and the District of Columbia have ended the exclusion of loving gay and lesbian couples from marriage.  More states, including California, Maryland, New York, and Rhode Island, may well end the exclusion from marriage this year, while still others are moving toward the freedom to marry step by step.

The reason for this momentum is that more and more Americans are getting to know loving, committed gay and lesbian couples and understanding why marriage matters to them, too.  They have watched their gay and lesbian friends and colleagues go through similar hardships and joys to those they have had in their own lives, and realized that their families deserve the same respect and protections as everyone else’s.  It’s as simple as The Golden Rule.

Last year, former President Bill Clinton said of his own personal journey to supporting the freedom to marry, “I was hung up about the word. I had all these gay friends, I had all these gay couple friends, and I was hung up about it. And I decided I was wrong.”  Laura Bush, Cindy McCain, and even Glenn Beck have spoken out in support of ending marriage discrimination, and President Obama recently signaled that he too is on the journey toward embracing marriage equality, stating, "attitudes evolve, including mine. And I think that it is an issue that I wrestle with and think about because I have a whole host of friends who are in gay partnerships. I have staff members who are in committed, monogamous relationships, who are raising children, who are wonderful parents. And I care about them deeply.” Later adding “It’s pretty clear where the trend lines are going.”
It is indeed quite clear: two separate polls in 2010 reported that a majority of Americans nationwide now support the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.  As Americans – men and women, Democrat and Republican, younger and older – learn about real couples and think more deeply about how the denial of marriage hurts real families while helping no one, their hearts and minds change  

What we have learned from states with civil union and similar interim mechanisms is that while a welcome step, civil union remains an abstraction to most people and is no substitute for the full measure of respect, clarity, security, responsibilities, and protections of marriage itself.  Everyone knows what marriage means; it’s a statement so important that most people wear its symbol on their hand.  Civil union doesn’t even have a verb.  

Not only does civil union lack the respect and personal significance that comes with marriage, it does not adequately protect same-sex couples and their families.  For example, as an official commission reported in New Jersey: in emergency rooms, in financial aid offices, and in companies across the state, same-sex couples are still being denied the rights and protections they were promised despite the passage of civil union in 2007.  After 18 public meetings, 26 hours of oral testimony and hundreds of pages of written submission from more than 150 witnesses, the commission concluded that “the difference in terminology, between ‘marriage’ and ‘civil union,’ stigmatizes gays and lesbians and their families because they are singled out as different.” 

Why do we need two lines at the clerk’s office?  Would you trade your marriage – or your grandmother’s – for a civil union?  Couples who have made a personal commitment in life and are doing the work of marriage every day deserve equal commitment under law – and that is called marriage.  It is time to get government out of the business of putting obstacles in the path of people seeking to take care of their loved ones, especially in tough economic times. Marriage matters.  End the exclusion now, and let these loving couples wed.