In spite of granting basic state-level legal recognition to committed same-sex relationships, civil unions constitute a second-class status when compared with civil marriage. Below are just some examples of the differences:
- The share of an employee’s benefits (family health insurance, etc.) that is paid by the employer is not taxable for a married couple; civil union partners have to pay taxes on those benefits.
- There are 1,138 benefits, protections and obligations that federal law prohibits civil union couples from receiving (including Social Security survivor benefits, family leave, and veterans’ benefits.)
- In emergency situations, hospitals, law enforcement, doctors, nurses and others recognize the rights of married spouses when dealing with healthcare decision-making. Civil union partner rights remain misunderstood and often require separate review and documentation in emergency situations.
- When family members are sick and hospitalized, married partners are understood to be family, and their visiting rights are respected. Civil union partners, on the other hand, are not consistently recognized as family and have been blocked from visiting their own children in hospital rooms.
- When traveling outside Illinois, couples in civil unions have found their family status and rights as parents misunderstood or denied in critical situations, unless they travel with complete sets of legal papers and court documents.
- In many jurisdictions outside Illinois, civil unions have no legal recognition or protections whatsoever.
Civil unions were intended to provide basic state-level legal protections to couples in committed relationships but aren’t recognized in many other states or by federal law. While everyone understands and honors marriage, civil union families are not treated with the same respect and often, in critical situations, must provide additional proof of status.
The U.S. Supreme Court has taken up a case that is widely expected to extend recognition under federal law to same-sex couples who are legally married. Should this happen, Illinois residents in civil unions would be ineligible for benefits under federal law that are available to married opposite-sex couples; they would also continue to occupy a second-class legal status.
While married families could enjoy the ability to file joint tax returns, participate in spousal Social Security and veterans’ benefits, naturalization of spouses etc., Illinois families in civil unions may find themselves left out.
And while these legal rights are important for healthcare, financial planning and protection of children, they are not the main reasons that Illinois same-sex couples want the freedom to marry. Lesbian and gay couples want to marry for the same reasons as everybody else. They want to pledge their commitment and fidelity before friends and family, to show their love for each other, and to build stable, nurturing families while contributing to their neighborhoods, their communities and their state.
The Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, which is pending before the Illinois General Assembly, protects the freedom of religion and would not require any faith institution to perform a union with which it disagrees.