ACLU Says Limiting Same-Sex Couples to Civil Unions is Discriminatory

May 30, 2012

(Wiki Image)

DENVER-It’s rare to find Colorado House Speaker Frank McNulty and the American Civil Liberties Union on the same side of an issue, but it turns out both are firmly opposed to civil unions.

National ACLU officials argued Wednesday that it is discriminatory to limit same-sex couples to “civil union status” after filing a lawsuit challenging the Illinois law banning same-sex marriage.

In 2011, the Illinois legislature passed a civil-unions bill that was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Patrick J. Quinn during a standing-room-only ceremony. At the time, the governor hailed the bill as “an important moment in the land of Lincoln.”

“We believe in civil rights and we believe in civil unions,” said Quinn at the January 2011 ceremony.

Civil unions in Illinois went into effect in June 2011. Twelve months later, gay-rights advocates agree that the law is deeply flawed.

Two of the plaintiffs, Tanya Lazaro and Elizabeth Matos of Chicago, said they rejected getting a civil union after the law was approved in 2011.

“Our relationship is not about some legal benefits and protections, but about love for one another,” said Lazaro. “We love each other; we are committed to one another. Anything short of marriage does not recognize that love and commitment.”

Eighteen plaintiffs are listed on the lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court by the national ACLU and the ACLU of Illinois. The ACLU press release notes that some of the case’s plaintiffs opted for civil unions after the law went into effect in 2011, while “some chose to wait for marriage.”

“In the complaint, these couples describe how it feels to be relegated to a legal status that sends the message that the state regards their relationships as inferior,” said the ACLU statement. “Couples also report multiple ways in which they are reminded that many people do not understand civil unions, nor do they afford civil unions the same respect as marriage.”

John Knight, director of the ACLU of Illinois’s LGBT Project, said in a statement that the civil-unions law shows a lack of respect for same-sex couples.

“Creating civil unions–a separate, novel and poorly understood status for gay and lesbian couples–does not honor the devotion of our families, nor fully protect them, but instead sends a powerful message that our families are inadequate and undeserving,” said Knight.

Illinois is not the first state to do an about-face on civil-unions legislation following its passage. In 2007, Washington Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire signed into law the state’s domestic-partners bill, calling it “a very proud moment for me as governor to make sure that the rights of all of our citizens are equal.”

During the 2012 legislative session, however, she lambasted support for the domestic-partners law as  “a version of the discriminatory ‘separate but equal’ argument of the past” shortly before she signed into law a same-sex marriage bill.

Thirteen states have passed either civil unions or domestic partners laws, but their lifespan tends to be brief. Connecticut passed a civil-unions law in 2005, then repealed it in 2010 after approving a gay-marriage bill. New Hampshire approved a civil-unions law in 2007 before replacing it with a same-sex marriage law in 2010.

Colorado approved a designated beneficiary agreement in 2009, which grants same-sex couples certain rights, including being able to make funeral arrangements, receiving death benefits, and inheriting property without a will.

McNulty was credited with killing a civil-unions bill twice in 2012, at the end of the legislative session in May and then again during the special session. The first time, the clock to expired on the session before the bill was brought to the floor for a vote. On the first day of the special session, he assigned the bill to the State Affairs Committee, where it was defeated on a party-line vote.

The Colorado civil-unions bill had strong support from Democrats, including Gov. John Hickenlooper, as well as several Republicans, but McNulty called the bill “a trojan horse.”

“It’s pretty clear that they’re creating same-sex marriage and calling it civil unions,” said McNulty. “It would have led to an attack on marriage in Colorado.”

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