Illinois became the sixth state in the nation to legitimize civil unions and domestic partnerships Monday with the signing of a bill that creates a foothold for getting gay marriage passed in the state.
Illinois joins California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington in giving same-sex couples the right to form a civil union so they can receive all the same benefits of married couples under state law.
In some cases, the establishment of legal civil unions has paved the way for gay marriage to follow. In Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut, for example, gay marriage followed the legalization of civil unions.
But with only six states sanctioning civil unions and a further five allowing gay marriage, the sample size is too small to draw a direct line from civil unions to gay marriage, says John D’Emillo, an expert on sexuality and public policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“One can say there is a precedent moving step by step, but the truth of the matter is gay marriage exists in too few places right now to really know if it’s going to happen,” he says.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) signed the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act Monday, and it will go into effect June 1. Despite opposition by groups including the Catholic Conference of Illinois, public opinion favored the law in the months before passage. A Chicago Tribune poll last September showed 57 percent of respondents approved the legalization of civil unions while 32 percent did not.
State Rep. Greg Harris (D), the measure's House sponsor who is openly gay, says public support was crucial to the bill’s passage. Mr. Harris says the broader public is starting to acknowledge a “difference between religious marriage and civil marriage, which is what the government does. I think that is an important distinction for a lot of folks.”
Harris added that "there was still work to do" to eventually pass gay marriage in Illinois, but he believed it would happen in the future.
With the federal 1996 Defense of Marriage act defining marriage as a pact between a man and a woman, gay marriage laws have been refined at the state level since, creating a patchwork of legislation. Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., are the only states or federal jurisdictions to allow gay marriage. New York and Maryland, meanwhile, do not issue marriage licenses but they recognize the rights of same-sex couples who may have been married or received civil-union certificates from another state.
Several challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act seek to remove limits that control the ways in which states recognize one another's marriage laws, says Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) civil-rights organization in Washington.
As more states pass some form of partnership legislation, the US Supreme Court might step in to create uniformity, just as it did in 2003 in a Texas case that effectively help repeal all state sodomy laws after years of individual state rulings, says Professor D'Emillo.
“At a certain point, [same-sex legislation] becomes so normalized that the exceptions are odd,” he adds.