Change Comes Today

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), January 31, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Change Comes Today


Byline: Kerry Lester and Mike Riopell klester@dailyherald.com mriopell@dailyherald.com

It began with a feeling of concern and turned quickly to anger.

Several years ago, Terry Merritt's partner, August Ziemann, was hurt in a head-on car crash shortly before Christmas.

Ziemann didn't appear to be hurt seriously, but Merritt took him to a hospital for care. Once his partner was admitted, Merritt stepped out briefly to make a phone call for work.

When he returned, a nurse wouldn't allow Merritt back into Ziemann's room.

Only family was allowed.

"Who are you telling me I can't see somebody I spend my life with?" Merritt said he told the nurse.

Under current Illinois law, same-sex partners like the Elgin couple don't qualify as family members.

A civil union a legal agreement that gives unmarried partners many of the same rights and benefits as married couples changes that.

Gov. Pat Quinn plans to sign civil unions into Illinois law this afternoon, and it will take effect this summer. But craving many of the same rights married couples enjoy, some

suburban gay couples started planning their ceremonies months ago.

Merritt said he wanted a simple ceremony at first.

"Now, with family and friends who want to be there, it's turning into a very large event," he said.

Quinn is planning his own large event to sign the legislation today at the Chicago Cultural Center, taking the somewhat unusual step of announcing the signing a week in advance and inviting the public to observe.

State Rep. Greg Harris of Chicago, who sponsored the law, said the response has been tremendous.

"It's not a question of will they fit in the room, it's a question of will they fit in the building," Harris said of attendees at today's event. "Never in our wildest dream did we figure that this would happen."

Quinn's signature comes on the heels of several other states approving either gay marriage or civil unions and a move toward gay rights in Illinois, too.

In 2005, lawmakers and then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich approved legislation outlawing discrimination against homosexuals in employment and housing matters.

The following year, domestic partner benefits were extended to gay and lesbian state employees.

Then, last December, during the House floor debate before a vote on the legislation, supporters pointed to the gradual end of discrimination throughout history against women and minorities as a reason why gay couples should have similar legal rights that heterosexual couples do.

Still, opponents of civil unions remain steadfast in their belief that the approval of civil unions is just one step toward gay marriage. In recent years, proposed Illinois constitutional amendments outlawing gay marriage have been filed, but they've never been voted on under Democratic leadership.

David E. Smith, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, said he's not counting on being able to turn the coming civil unions law around.

In Illinois, lawmakers wanting to repeal civil unions would face the same all-but-impossible hurdle faced by those wanting to repeal the recent income-tax increase: The Democratic leaders who only recently secured the law's passage are still in control of the legislature.

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