The Illinois’ General Assembly’s approval of a bill authorizing civil unions is a step towards dismantling the barriers that limit access of gay and lesbian couples to the full protections and benefits guaranteed all Americans in our Constitution. It is a crucial first step after years of legislative obstructions and diversions, dating back to 1996 when the U.S. Congress adopted the Defense of Marriage Act which restricted marriage to heterosexual couples, followed eight years later by adoption of constitutional amendments or statutes banning same-sex marriage in 13 states, including Illinois.
What this action is not is a threat to the sanctity of marriage, nor is it an effort to undermine religious freedom. Churches, synagogues and temples are not encouraged or compelled to bless or otherwise recognize civil unions in the act (SB1716) adopted by the state Senate December 1. The language of the bill makes this clear: “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.”
When this bill is signed by Illinois’ governor, who has pledged to do so, and goes into effect next June, adults who enter into civil unions will have hospital visitation rights when one of them is hospitalized; the power to make medical decisions for their partners; access to their partners state spousal benefits; the right to share a nursing home or hospital room with their partner; equal tax treatment by state and local governments; and equal treatment in estate tax application and inheritance. Children of civil union couples will have access to healthcare coverage of their parents’ employers and survivor benefits when a parent dies, rights they are currently denied.
This is significant progress given the efforts to stymie equal rights for gay and lesbian couples over the past two decades. But it is only a few steps off the sidelines. The rights this bill bestows on same-sex or opposite sex couples extend no further than the Illinois borders. Under federal law, couples in state licensed civil unions still are barred from filing their federal income tax returns as a married couple, still are barred from being awarded survivor benefits of their partners’ Social Security benefits, still are denied access to COBRA healthcare coverage if their partner loses his or her job, and still will be taxed on their domestic partner benefits by the federal government.
Equal access has been advanced but it comes with an asterisk—gay and lesbian partners living in committed relationships enjoy privileges and protections in some states, but not all states. Eventually they might. Currently five states and the District of Columbia grant spousal rights benefits to same-sex couples through civil union or domestic partnership provisions, and five others issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Public opinion now clearly favors civil unions and is leaning toward supporting marriage for same-sex couples.
As society at large moves further towards understanding gay and lesbian concerns as matters of justice, not morality, religious institutions continue to struggle with welcoming and accepting gay and lesbian people as full members of the faith community. This is a stark contrast to the positions and actions taken by Christian, Muslim and Jewish denominations during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s when faith leaders were very much in front of the general populace in battling racism and discriminatory laws and practices.
For the Episcopal Church, this social justice awareness nurtured in the civil rights movement helped open the ordination process to women in the 1970s, and laid the groundwork for the effort for full inclusion of gay and lesbian members in recent decades.
We are not there yet, but getting closer. Since 1994 we have declared that no person can be barred from the discernment process for ministry because of sexual orientation; and beginning in 1976 we have affirmed and reaffirmed that homosexual persons are children of God and entitled to full civil rights. At our most recent General Convention in 2009 we directed our liturgy and music commission to develop an open process for developing theological resources for the blessing of same gender unions. At our next General Convention in 2012 we may well be approving rites for blessing these unions.
At each point on this journey we have affirmed that gay and lesbian people have an equal claim on the love, acceptance and pastoral care of the church, and acknowledged the variety of theological understandings in the church regarding human sexuality. The Illinois General Assembly’s action December 1 affirmed both underlying principles: respecting the dignity of every human being and respecting the freedom of belief. It is one step on the path to full civil rights and equal protection under the law for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. More will be made. That is my hope and prayer.
The Rt. Rev. Jeffrey D. Lee
Bishop of Chicago