Thursday, December 09, 2010

Illinois Accepts New Kind of Union

From When I was a kid, many families had a regular night to eat out. Ours was Thursday. We rotated among Carroll's, the Revere Room, the Clay-Mor, the National Trail Inn, Northgate and other lost gems of Collinsville's culinary past.

It also was restaurant night for a couple — friends of my parents — who dined on the same circuit. Our conversations were always warm. Childless themselves, the two lavished attention on my sister and me. They acted like any middle-aged married couple of the 1960s, except they weren't married. They couldn't be. They were two single women, living their lives together.

The precise nature of their relationship was beyond my youthful curiosity. Once I was mature enough to grasp the obvious, the questions in my mind did not range to inheritance rights, health insurance coverage or whether one might make medical decisions for the other.

Now, decades later, the Illinois Legislature has decided to confer rights and protections that those nice women at the next table probably would have found hard to imagine.

Not everybody's happy about it, and I find that hard to imagine.

Illinois is about to become the nation's 11th state, plus the District of Columbia, to provide some kind of legal recognition to same-sex couples.

The House passed SB1716 on a 61-52 roll call Nov. 30, and the Senate 32-24 the next day. A little Republican support (six votes) put it over the top in the House. Gov. Pat Quinn has promised to sign the bill into law, effective June 1, 2011.

Essentially, it provides husband-wifelike legal status to couples — homosexual or heterosexual — without religious connotation or the M-word. Hence, we say "civil union," not "marriage."

It feels like a small step. You see, we've already had state-sanctioned civil unions for a long time.

I wanted to become a partner in one almost 20 years ago. When I fell in love with my wife, she had an adorable 5-year-old son. But since he already had a perfectly viable father, Chris was not available for me to formally adopt.

What is adoption if not a civil union? People with no common blood enter a formal agreement that binds them as if they were kin. It guarantees rights of access and decision making. It provides a legal basis for each to share assets with — and take care of — the other.

Oh, the naysayers will quickly suggest that there is a huge difference: There is no sexual component to adoption. But homosexual civil unions aren't about sex either. They do not authorize any bedroom behavior that hasn't already been legal in every state since at least 2003, with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Lawrence v. Texas.

Those who want Illinois statutes to reflect their judgment of homosexuality as an abomination didn't lose the battle in 2010. They lost it in 1961, when the Legislature made Illinois the first state to remove laws regulating sexual conduct between consenting adults. (Missouri rescinded its last restrictions in 2006, after the Lawrence case had rendered them meaningless.)

For the sake of political correctness, SB1716 is titled the "Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act." The "religious freedom" part up front just means that if you don't like it, don't bless it. Officially: "Nothing in this Act shall interfere with or regulate the religious practice of any religious body. Any religious body, Indian Nation or Tribe or Native Group is free to choose whether or not to solemnize or officiate a civil union."

Otherwise, the unions work a lot like the, well, that M-word. Unionists (unitees?) have to be at least 18, not closely related and neither married nor civilly united somewhere else. They get a license from the county clerk. They can dissolve the union under the same terms as a divorce.

For the record, these people still will not be related in federal eyes for such things as joint income tax returns or Social Security benefits. That's because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which was passed to protect the unions of we straight people.

In that regard, I have discussed the new Illinois law with my wife. We are happy to report that we think our marriage can survive it.