Groups on both sides of the same-sex marriage issue fight to change law in Illinois

By Erica Christoffer

Lauren Hasselson and Christy Fairbairn of Bloomingdale, Ill. know they’re up against a tough fight. The couple, who demonstrated against the approval of California’s Proposition 8 in Downtown Chicago last month, plan to wed May 2 in a commitment ceremony. They want nothing more than their vows to be recognized under Illinois law.

Yet momentum has gained on both sides of this controversial debate since Nov. 4 when three states – Florida, Arizona and California – passed referendums against same-sex marriage.

Protect Marriage Illinois board member Peter LaBarbera said his group would like to see even stronger legislation enacted in Illinois. His group is considering plans for a ballot issue in 2010 to amend the state’s constitution to define marriage between one man and one woman, while state Rep. Greg Harris, an openly gay state legislator from House District 13 on Chicago’s Northside, is working to get his civil unions bill advanced to a floor vote early in 2009.

“What I really hope is the people who became angry when [Proposition 8] passed in California will transfer that anger to political action in Illinois,” Harris said.

Proposition 8, which passed with 52 percent of the vote, reverses a May court ruling that had allowed thousands of couples to wed in California. Gay marriage foes see it as a major victory across the country.

“I think the Proposition 8 protests are arrogant,” said LaBarbera. “The issue was struck down.” He also takes issue with gay activists calling opponents bigots and hateful. “That’s just an insult.”

LaBarbera, who also serves as president of Americans For Truth about Homosexuality, called same-sex marriage “a threat to religions liberty,” saying he fears if it were legalized, churches would eventually be forced to perform same-sex marriages.

Corrine Mina, co-organizer of the Chicago Against Prop 8 rally held in November, said churches need not worry they will be forced to perform any ceremonies.illustration1

“[Gay couples] are not looking for religions groups to marry them,” said Mina. “They’re just looking for the rights married people have. Equal rights is the ultimate goal.”

There are 1,138 benefits, rights and privileges related to marital status, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. They include tax breaks, estate rights and government benefits, such as spouses receiving Social Security and Medicare.

“Instead of seeing it as a loss, this has given us a huge window of opportunity,” said Fairbairn, 25.

She speculates that if Proposition 8 had not passed, same-sex marriage would have indeed been legal in California, but the issues would have remained quiet throughout the rest of the country. Now, she says, a fire has been lit under gay activists to fight harder for equal marriage rights, including in Illinois.

In 1996, Congress enacted the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages and allows states to do the same. That same year, the General Assembly changed Illinois law to define marriage between one man and one woman.

Forty-one states currently have Defense of Marriage Acts and 30 states have ratified their constitution to define marriage between one man and one woman, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In 2006, the Illinois Family Institute and Protect Marriage Illinois tried to get a constitutional referendum against same-sex marriage on the ballot in Illinois, but many of the signatures gathered were thrown out by the State Board of Elections because they were not filed under the correct election jurisdiction. In the end, they were short of the approximately 283,000 signatures required. They tried in 2008 but again fell short on signatures.

“To me, it says for most people in Illinois, this is not a big issue,” Harris said.

Harris originally proposed a same-sex marriage bill – “Marriage Equality Illinois” – early in 2007. But after speaking with each and every one of the House’s 117 other members, Harris expects more support among his General Assembly colleagues for civil unions (H.B. 1826) than for gay marriage.

Countering Harris’ legislation, Rep. David Reis of Jasper County introduced a bill two years ago proposing a constitutional amendment defining marriage between one man and one woman. It hasn’t moved from Rules Committee. “If it comes out of Rules, it will sail through the House,” Harris said.

The tide of same-sex marriage could turn either way in the General Assembly next year, Harris said, but he’s hopeful about his civil unions bill.

Massachusetts and now Connecticut are the only two states in the United States issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Rhode Island recognizes same-sex marriages from other states, and Oregon provides nearly all state-level spousal rights to domestic partnerships.

“We’re here to win equal marriage rights right here in Illinois,” said Andy Thayer, co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network, at the Nov. 15 Chicago rally. “Civil rights have never been won by people politely asking for them; they’ve been won by people demanding them.

Fairbairn said, “I think we have a really long way to go before we feel there is real progress made. Ultimately, the goal is to be legal across the country. But baby steps – there has to be compromise from both sides. Maybe county-by-county, maybe that’s where it has to start.”

Hasselson, who popped the question to Fairbairn on Jan. 22, her 25th birthday, hid the custom ring set with diamonds from her grandmother’s necklace and stones from Fairbairn’s mother’s original wedding band, in a bag of Fairbairn’s favorite treat – gummy bears.

“I pulled it out, and I held it there for a second. I said, ‘Are you serious?'” Fairbairn recounted of the proposal. Hasselson replied with, “I want to be with you forever.” The couple is in the midst of planning a ceremony and reception with 130 guests.

“I tell myself its cool, I don’t need a piece of paper to prove my love,” said Hasselson. “But when I discuss it with others, it’s hard; I’m not, but I am [getting married].”

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