Lambda Legal attorney Camilla Taylor and state Rep. Deborah Mell, D-Chicago, joined journalist Laura Washington at the Chicago History Museum ( CHM ) Sept. 14 for a lively update on the status of marriage rights for LGBT individuals. The event, part of CHM's In The K/Now public education series, was intended to be a debate. However, museum staffers were unable to secure a commitment from an anti-marriage activist to participate and the resulting program felt more like a rally; when polled, only two people in the near-capacity audience admitted to being against marriage rights.
Mell made national news in April when she took a "point of personal privilege" on the House floor to announce her engagement to her partner Christin Baker and talk about their upcoming trip to Iowa to get married ( see video at www.youtube.com/watch ) . One of her motives, she explained at the CHM program, was to put a face to the issue because she wants her colleagues "to know us" and to know Baker when the Civil Unions Act comes up for a vote in the Illinois legislature after the November elections.
"Gay people will be allowed to marry in Illinois someday," said Mell. "I'm not thrilled about civil unions; I want access to the institution of marriage," she added, explaining that there has been a positive shift in attitude in Baker's family since the engagement announcement as "marriage is very important in her family. Getting 'civil unionized' does not have the same quality to it. Taylorwho was the lead counsel on Varnum v. Brien, the lawsuit filed in 2005 that was the basis for the unanimous 2009 Iowa Supreme Court ruling granting same-sex couples equal marriage rightsnoted that "civil unions can never be equal to marriage." However, she admitted that "we have work remaining in Illinois; we're not there yet."
While supporters are secure in a plentitude of votes in support of civil unions for Illinois, that support drops sharply when marriage is brought into the mix. At this time, Mell explained, civil unions are "doable." After passage of the bill, advocates in and out of the legislature will continue to work for full marriage equality. "I'm very comfortable with how things are progressing," she said. "Greg Harris [ lead bill sponsor and the only other out gay member of the General Assembly ] is a very talented legislator."
Taylor stressed the need for more public education and outreach. "You need to have the legal decision embraced so that you can hold onto victory, you don't want a backlash. In Iowa, 53 percent of the public supports gay marriage."
She explained that while Iowa may be thought of as an unlikely place to support gay marriage, the state actually has a "long tradition of leadership on civil-rights issues." It was the first state to let a woman onto the bar, the first state with court-ordered desegregation of schools and the first state to refuse to accommodate the Fugitive Slave Act.
Taylor found that during the years of public education in Iowa "because of the rural nature there was a 'live and let live' mentality and basic respect for discourse." She did caution that there is some concern around the November elections: three of the Iowa judges are up for retention and rights opponents around the country are sending money to fight their retention.
Things have moved slowly in Illinois due in part to the amount of resources that have been devoted to "standing up against targeted measures of popular expressions of dislike or hatred against a minority," Taylor said.
Illinois does not have a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage ( although state statute defines marriage as "a union between a man and a woman" ) , but because the state has an advisory referendum process there is a perpetual resource drain fighting efforts to get a ban on the ballot.
Washington noted that at the heart of the issue are language and the perception "that marriage is a sacred activity that has a religious connotation to it."
Taylor stated that any church or religious institution can decide if it will perform a faith-based union between individuals. "Religion does not speak with a monolithic voice," she said, noting objections to performing marriage rites for divorced individuals or interfaith couples in certain religions.
However, "when we are talking about equality, we're talking about how government treats you. It is inherently wrong for government to say to some families that you are not as good as other families and we will not let you participate in the only institution that we recognize as a family," she said. "If government makes available an institution to some people, it is sound constitutional law that that institution be available to everyone."
For the time being, marriage rights advocates will support the Illinois Civil Union Act ( SB 1716 ) which "defines civil union as a legal relationship between 2 persons, of either the same or opposite sex, established in accordance with the Act. Provides that a party to a civil union shall be entitled to the same legal obligations, responsibilities, protections, and benefits afforded or recognized by the law of Illinois to spouses."
During the Q&A one audience member asked Taylor to speculate on a U.S. Supreme Court vote. Taylor was optimistic and noted that federal courts are increasingly ruling in favor of LGBT questions, viewing sexual orientation classification issues the same as sexual ( male/female ) classification issues. She said that in court decisions gay people are increasingly being treated with respect as individuals and that we have moved beyond the time when it was okay to say that gay people are repugnant or that the "desire to express disapproval for another group of people is an okay basis for legislation."
Taylor said the two cases to watch are the challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act with the Massachusetts' Gill v. Office of Personnel Management and California's Prop 8 case, which "has the potential to strike down all state marriage bans."