PI Original Adam Doster Tuesday November 30th, 2010, 11:09am

Liveblog: The Showdown Over Civil Unions

Before the end of the week, Illinois could very well become the sixth state in the United States to allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions.

Before the end of the week, Illinois could very well become the sixth state in the United States to allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions.

Supporters are hopeful that later today the Illinois House will finally vote on SB 1716, legislation authored by State Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago) that would give gay partners several basic rights heterosexual couples currently take for granted. Lobbying over the past week has been fierce. Conservative Christians, most notably Chicago Cardinal Francis George, have been leaning on swing lawmakers hard, arguing that the bill redefines marriage in the Land of Lincoln. The conservative Illinois Family Institute has reportedly made "hundreds of thousands of automated calls" to voters in recent months, urging them to reach out to their representatives.

Those in favor of the bill, however, are confident that they've done their due diligence. On his Facebook page this morning, Harris wrote that "today is the day." Lame duck lawmakers, even some from conservative districts, are hinting they will join Harris in voting for the bill. "We are just a few votes away in the House for victory," Equality Illinois' Rick Garcia told ChicagoPride.com yesterday evening. (There is one dynamic that could hurt the gay rights advocates: two gettable votes, State Reps. Rosemary Mulligan (R-Des Plaines) and Lisa Dugan (D-Bradley) are both absent today.)

It's important to reiterate that civil unions are not equivalent to full marriage rights. Gay couples, for example, would still not be able to file their taxes jointly or leave work to care for an ailing spouse. But they would be able to sit bedside with their loved one in the hospital, receive survivor benefits, and be given authority to help make end-of-life decisions.

"It’s best to get some protections now instead of god knows when. People can’t wait for the political climate to be right for same-sex marriage," Christopher Clark, senior staff attorney for Lambda Legal’s Midwest office, told WBEZ. "This will provide rights and benefits people need right now." Civil unions, it should be noted, are very popular in Illinois; all the way back in 2005, a Northern Illinois University survey found that 65 percent of Illinoisans want to extend either full marriage or civil union rights to same-sex couples.

If Harris' bill passes the House, it would move over to the Senate, where it's expected to pass easily. (One interesting political story in the upper chamber centers around State Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago), who is currently running for mayor of Chicago. An opponent of gay rights, Meeks is reportedly working behind the scenes to shelf the civil unions bill in the House, thus preventing a tough vote. Meeks denies the charge.) Gov. Pat Quinn says he will sign the bill immediately if and when it gets to his desk.

Before the showdown in Springfield, a coalition of religious groups will speak in favor of the measure in the capitol building. We will provide video of that press conference, as well as updates from the dome, as they become available. Be sure to check back later for more coverage.

UPDATE (11:12 a.m.): Capitol Fax confirms that Rep. Mulligan is on her way to the statehouse. Rep. Dugan is still absent.

UPDATE 2 (12:15 p.m.): Not all religious institutions are opposed to civil unions. At the capitol earlier today, two dozen clergy members presented a signed statement from over 300 of their Illinois colleagues in support of SB 1716. Rev. Suzanne Anderson-Hurdle from Romeoville said that support for gay couples does not stand in contradiction to her beliefs. Watch it below:

UPDATE 3 (3:06 p.m.): While most of the attention is focused on the House today, the State Senate did its part to bring some equity to Illinois, moving its version of the civil unions bill out of committee by a 6-2 margin. The upper chamber would have to approve the legislation if it clears the House.

UPDATE 4 (4:29 p.m.): The House just went back into session, so the bill could come up for a vote anytime now.

UPDATE 5 (5:20 p.m.): Rep. Harris just started his opening statement. "Once in every generation," he says, "legislatures across the country have a chance to advance the cause of liberty and justice for all."

UPDATE 6 (5:25 p.m.): Harris is now reading quotes used to justify past injustices in Illinois, like miscegenation laws. "Each of us in this chamber today," he adds, "have the chance to be remembered by history as being on the right side of justice."

UPDATE 7 (5:37 p.m.): State Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Decatur), the first to stand in opposition, suggests that the Greek and Roman civilizations fell because of "open homosexuality." Honestly.

UPDATE 8 (5:44 p.m.): State Rep. Deb Mell (D-Chicago), one of two openly gay members of the chamber, stands in support. "From my family to yours, Greg," she says, "thanks so much."

UPDATE 9 (6:01 p.m.): State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago) namechecks Larry McKeon, Illinois' first openly gay state representative who was forced to leave his partner's deathbed because he did not have the proper paperwork.

UPDATE 10 (6:08 p.m.): While we don't want to be overconfident, it's highly unlikely that Harris and House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) would have called the bill if they weren't sure they had enough votes to get it over the ledge. Expect an affirmative vote soon.

UPDATE 11 (6:18 p.m.): Minutes after Gov. Pat Quinn entered the chamber, State Rep. Mark Beaubien (R-Wauconda) became the first Republican to voice support for the legislation. Good on ya, Rep. Beaubien! State Rep. William Black (R-Danville) joins him.

UPDATE 12 (6:28 p.m.): And there it is! The civil unions bill passes by a 61-52 margin! Two voted present and three did not vote. Now on to the Senate, where it's expected to be approved quickly.

Good things do happen in Springfield, now and again.


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