Supreme Court ruling ‘bittersweet’ for Illinois civil-union couples

June 26, 2013

WBEZ/Shawn Allee
Chicago's Gay Liberation Network hosted a rally Wednesday evening.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s move to strike down the federal definition of marriage on Wednesday likely won’t have much of an effect on the thousands of Illinois couples who have entered civil unions, according to legal activists.

The justices’ decision to invalidate a part of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as being between one man and one woman, clears the way for married gay couples to qualify for some federal benefits previously granted only to heterosexual couples.

But most of those benefits likely will not apply to same-sex couples in Illinois civil unions, said Camilla Taylor, a lawyer with the gay rights group Lambda Legal.

“As a general rule, couples in civil unions are gonna feel the hurt of discrimination on a federal level, as well as a state level,” Taylor said. That’s because most federal laws refer only to marriage, not civil unions, she said.

Same-sex civil unions, which confer some state-level legal benefits to couples, are currently allowed in six states, including Illinois. About 6,100 couples have applied for civil union licenses in the state through May, according to the state Department of Public Health.

But court’s decision will only apply to couples in the thirteen states, and the District of Columbia, where same-sex marriages are currently allowed, Taylor said. Those couples could qualify for certain Social Security benefits, veterans benefits and immigration status, once federal agencies sort out their procedures in the wake of Wednesday’s ruling.

“There’s certainly people who have gone to Iowa, or elsewhere—to another state or even to Canada to get married,” said John Knight, director of the ACLU of Illinois’ LGBT project. “That marriage is legal but it’s not recognized by the state of Illinois as a marriage, it’s recognized only as a civil union.”

He says those marriages may be eligible for certain benefits but they’re waiting for guidance from the federal government to make it clear that federal benefits are provided to those people even though the state doesn’t recognize their marriage.

That’s why news of Wednesday’s court decisions was met with mixed emotions from couples like Lakeesha Harris and Janean Watkins, both from Chicago.

Two years ago, the pair became the first in Cook County to get a civil union license, after being together for about a decade.

But now, Harris, 38, said she feels elated, yet distant, from Wednesday’s rulings.

“For Illinois, in this middle ground, this holding’s very bittersweet,” Harris said. “Like, we’re watching these federal laws progress, [but] here in the state of Illinois, not so much.”

A bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Illinois fizzled in the waning hours of the legislative session last month, when its sponsor declined to call it up for a vote in the House. The bill has already cleared the State Senate, and Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has vowed to sign it if it passes the General Assembly.

But Watkins, 39, said she hopes the rulings will add some momentum to the push for same-sex marriage in Illinois.

“Hopefully, that’ll make some of the legislators and lawmakers see that, okay, it’s not gonna make everything come to pieces,” Watkins said. “It’s gonna help economically, it’s gonna help socially, it’s gonna help in many different ways.”

Alex Keefe covers politcs for WBEZ. Follow him @akeefe.

WBEZ producer Katie O'Brien contributed to this report.