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Chicago lawmakers address new Illinois same-sex marriage law

State Sen. Heather Steans of Illinois addressed an information forum on new same-sex law in Illinois
State Sen. Heather Steans of Illinois addressed an information forum on new same-sex law in Illinois
Office of Heather Steans

In the aftermath of the passage of the same-sex marriage bill SB10, in November, The Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act which granted marriage benefits to same-sex couples in Illinois, many questions remain as to the specifics of the law, and while the celebrations and the marriage ceremonies are being planned, one group of Illinois lawmakers met on Wednesday in an informational forum to address them.

Led by Democratic Alderman Joe Moore of Chicago, and joined by other party state lawmakers, State Senator Heather Steans, chief Senate sponsor of the bill, State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, one of the House sponsors, and Ed Yhonka, Director of Communications and Public Policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, and Cook County Clerk, David Orr.

Substituting as MC for Moore, who was scheduled for a local television appearance was Bob Fuller from his office who first introduced Sen. Steans, who noted that the first successful bill was passed in 2004 in Massachusetts, and who also noted that after that victory, the Boston Red Sox won three World Series and humorously, if not ruefully, hoped that the same would happened with the Chicago Cubs, who have not been champs since 1908.

Taking a more serious note Steans noted that the very public and vocal stance taken by President Obama helped to move the momentum to the foreground and “in the grand scheme of things” the one-on-one conversations began in earnest, and this “shift in attitudes allowed us to tell [other] legislators, and every district supporter” but also noted that in reaction to the positive, they also “heard more negative than positive from the opposition.”

But, the senator also stressed that the momentum also gave all concerned an “all hands on deck” attitude that helped contribute to the victory in November.

And, of those who helped Steans noted in particular, Equality Illinois, the ACLU, and The Civil Rights Agenda, and the stalwart support of State Senate President John Cullerton.

For the record, she also noted what many in the room had probably long acknowledged” “Civil Unions are just not the same – the benefits [for example], joint tax returns, for one, but most of all the expression of love and dignity.”

Noting that that are 40,000 gays and lesbians in Illinois and of that, 38,000 are couples, and that there were 6,100 civil unions performed since May of 2013, there should be “111,000 in the first three years of marriage”, and deadpanned, “and 100 million dollars in wedding [planning] business.”

She also noted that the failure to bring the bill to a vote in May, that “nothing is more heartbreaking when things go wrong, and this was especially true for Kelly (Cassidy) and Greg (Harris, Democratic, state rept. Chicago, and chief sponsor in the House).”

Praising Cassidy for “crisscrossing Illinois” to persuade voters was also personal in that the stake was note merely legislative as personal because she and her partner Kelley Quinn became engaged.

At this point, Kelly Cassidy was introduced to huge applause and noted that while she was thrilled with the outcome that there still remained much work to do “we need an anti-bullying bill and our trans bothers and sisters need protection.”

But she also thrilled to the fact that “our caucus rallied 5,000 legislative contacts” And that the March at the capitol in Springfield engendered palpable “joy in the building,” but now it’s time to “stand with the folks who stood with us,” meaning the hundreds of support that was received statewide by supporters that made passage of the bill a reality.

Next up was David Orr, who said how he was “proud of the community,” and that in 1979 there was almost no support, and was genuinely delighted at “how far we’ve come, to see social justice [there] was so little support in ’79.”

Orr quickly hit the floor with the specifics, and noted that while much was the same for non-same-sex couples that, if desired the couples united can convert their civil unions to marriages by applying for a license and have a marriage within 60 days of the application, with the standard $60 marriage license fee waived.

And, also they can from June 1st of this year to May 31, 2015 convert using the same date as the civil union, without the requirement of a ceremony, and no fee would be charges within the first year of the new law.

Orr also noted that the Cook County Clerk’s office are ready to help those same-sex couples who get married have the option of getting wallet cards in case of medical emergencies.

And, for many couples that were present the good news that “if you’re married in other states, it will be recognized in Illinois.”

Last on the rostrum was Ed Yhonka, of the ACLU, who announced, excitedly, “We won the debate!” and then quickly acknowledged the unequivocal support of those lawmakers present.

But, most importantly, he noted that while state law parameters necessitated the six month waiting period that for many reasons that couples outside of serious illness can get a waiver that others might “when marriage might make a real difference,” that we have asked the federal court” for a ruling that would “allow licenses to be issued immediately as soon as the judge gives the order, in the next few weeks, or even days,” a relief to many, and an acknowledgment that one couple, Vernita Gray and her partner Pat Ewert can marry because of Gray’s terminal breast cancer, which has spread to her brain, and were allowed to marry because of that under a federal court order that was granted last November, making them the first couple to be wed under the new Illinois law.

Yhonka was quick to point out that this order would only have effect in Cook County.

In response to various questions, many of them financial, he urged couples to “consult with lawyers to think through all of the questions.”

One unspoken concern that was on many minds was could the law be challenged, as has happened elsewhere. Yhonka replied that this was “highly unlikely for the state of Illinois to walk this law back.”

And, furthermore we “cannot write discrimination into our law, [the result would be] chaos.”

Questions were also related to whether churches can be compelled, or even granted permission to officiate at same-sex marriages, but Cassidy noted, “just as the Catholic church cannot be compelled to marry divorced people,” neither can it with this law.

Local attorney Bryan Moore questioned the rights of foreign nationals desiring to join and be married under the new law.

Yhonka replied that “ICE has a whole new set of regulations to clarify and recognize marriage, and that there will be a lot less deportations.”

Following up on Moore’s question, he gave us an emailed response clarifying his concern. He said, "Although the strike-down of DOMA in June allows same-sex US spouses the right to petition for green cards for same-sex foreign born nationals, those nationals must be here legally and on a temporary visa. What remains to be seen is whether someone here illegally can stay (prevent) his or her deportation by marrying a same-sex US national. I would think that would be a difficult hurdle to overcome. There is no citizenship requirement to marry in Illinois, and so long as one can produce two of the seven document requirements, a license will probably be granted--but that fact alone probably will not stay a deportation. In fact, it's a difficult hurdle to overcome for straight couples."

While there remains concluding questions, and even concerns, as Moore pointed out, these concerns will have to be addressed, in some manner; but one thing that gives solace to the discussion is that same-sex marriage is now the law in the land of Lincoln.

Follow me @dgrantchi

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