PEORIA - State Sen. David Koehler is proposing legislation that would legalize civil unions in Illinois and entitle unmarried couples - including those of the same sex - to the same protections and benefits currently afforded to traditional married couples.
"This is going to be controversial because people are going to try to get all other kinds of issues about the morality of being gay," said Koehler, D-Peoria, of the proposed Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act. "I hope that can stay to the sideline, because that's not the full intent of this bill. This bill is merely to recognize there are long-term committed relationships that right now do not have the law behind them."
In addition to benefiting same-sex couples, the bill also would allow civil unions among opposite-sex couples who do not want to be married. Benefits would allow couples to participate in health-care decisions for their partner, in decisions regarding the remains of a deceased partner and would give them legal backing to settle estates, among other rights.
Senate Bill 2436 was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Civil Law Committee on Wednesday. The bill first was introduced in the House last year by state Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, and although it has passed out of committee has not advanced for full floor debate.
Although New Jersey, Vermont and Connecticut all recognize civil unions, only Massachusetts provides for gay marriages.
The legislation has its detractors and likely will face a long battle. David Smith, executive director of the conservative group Illinois Family Institute, called it "just another attempt to pass counterfeit marriage in Illinois."
"Government recognition of homosexual relationships will undermine our society, our culture and our faith, and it will threaten religious liberty. It will pit gay rights against religious freedom," said Smith, whose group is actively lobbying against the bill.
The bill states that two adults who enter a civil union and are at least 18 years old are entitled to all of the same legal obligations, responsibilities, protections and benefits that are afforded to spouses. The state would certify the civil union, which also could be dissolved under existing laws, similar to divorce proceedings.
Illinois also would recognize same sex marriages and civil unions from other states as civil unions here, according to the legislation.
"This would allow couples and partners to engage in a civil union so they would have those same kinds of legal rights," Koehler said. "I think this helps to create more stability in relationships, which I think is something as a society we would want to promote."
The Family Institute spearheaded a petition drive in 2006 for a non-binding referendum asking voters if they wanted to amend the state Constitution to ban gay marriage. However, state election officials determined there were not enough valid signatures to take the issue to voters.
"If we can take some of the emotion out of this and deal with it as pretty straight-forward issues of justice and trying to extend rights, then I think we can be successful in this," Koehler said.