Illinois’ Civil Union Act is an important step – but less than perfect
Its name may not be romantic, but the Civil Union Act has set many Illinois hearts free. Technically known as the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act, it’s Illinois’ answer to the gay marriage question: It provides a status equal to marriage, but separate from it.
As a result, civil union couples in Illinois can be treated like traditional spouses in many rights that really matter: they can make life and death medical decisions for each other, inherit from each other and divorce each other. While the right to divorce can seem like the least appealing of benefits, it may be the most meaningful. It’s hard to feel safe in a relationship that has no clear rules of property ownership or “rules of the road” should a break up occur. As Judge Michele Lowrance, author of The Good Karma Divorce, says, “Breakups are a part of our evolution, and frankly, the only way to avoid one is solitary confinement.”
In a civil union, almost all the protections that marriage offers are present; it’s the “almost” that will make this law and Illinois love lives more challenging. When we view the gut-wrenching battle over gay marriage on a federal level, it’s easy to see why Illinois decided to avoid confronting the issue directly. But like every political compromise, the civil union solution is less than perfect.
Less Than Perfect Unions
Everyone needs to understand the Civil Union Act because it’s available to any unmarried couple, whether in a same-sex or opposite-sex relationship. Part of the genius of the Illinois law is that it’s not restricted to gay couples; it’s a viable alternative to marriage for those who feel it may work better for them. But the pros and cons need to be carefully evaluated.
For same sex couples, most of the problems will flow from the fact that federal law trumps state law. As long as the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is the law of the land, a “spouse” can only be of the opposite sex. That means federal spousal benefits that married couples take for granted, like joint tax returns, retirement benefits, insurance coverage and many aspects of health and welfare, will not be available to those who are civilly united. It’s been estimated that there are over 1,000 such advantages tied to the federal definition of a spouse. Whether or not the estimate is accurate, it’s impossible to deny that the “separate” status of life in a civil union is not all that equal.
The other glaring inequality of civil unions is their legal uncertainty amidst political war games in other states. The legal and social landscape of our country on same-sex relationships is constantly changing, which means crossing state lines can be dangerous to your legal status. While 19 states now recognize some form of same-sex relationships, they run the gamut from domestic partnerships to civil unions all the way to marriage.