Sate Rep. Greg Harris, the chief sponsor of the civil unions bill in the House, said he felt it would be disciminatory to limit the legislation to same-sex couples. (Abel Uribe, Chicago Tribune / November 30, 2010)

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While celebrated as a historic step forward for gay rights in Illinois, the new civil union bill that awaits Gov. Pat Quinn's signature also offers opportunities for heterosexual couples who don't want to wed but seek many of the legal protections of marriage.

Granted, this is likely to be a narrow swath of the population, but those who drafted the law felt it important to be inclusive, particularly given that the bill's intent was to open up rights that had long been denied to a demographic group.

"It just seemed wrong to me to write a law that would be discriminatory," said state Rep. Greg Harris, D- Chicago, the bill's chief sponsor in the House.

He said some senior citizens lobbied for the bill. Seniors with survivor's benefits from Social Security or a pension could lose that income if they remarry. A civil union allows them to keep that benefit while providing the same state-level rights as a marriage.


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"If you go to a senior building, you'll find a lot of people who face this dilemma," Harris said. "They may be the largest single group of beneficiaries by number."

In a 2009 article in Elder Law Journal, Chicago attorney John Schleppenbach wrote that Illinois would be nearly unique if it offered civil unions to straight couples, making the bill of "vital importance" to seniors who risked losing benefits by getting married.

Andrew Koppelman, a professor of law and political science at Northwestern University, said civil unions also provide straight couples with an option that gives them legal support but doesn't carry the title of "marriage."

"There are some who think marriage is an anachronistic and patriarchal institution," he said. "It's got this administrative dimension, which provides for hospital visitation rights and inheritance rights and that sort of thing, and then also it includes this symbolic status. Well, there are some people who like the symbolic status and some people who don't."

Courtney Greve, spokeswoman for Cook County Clerk David Orr, said the clerk's office gets weekly calls from heterosexual couples who don't want to marry but are interested in some sort of domestic partnership. Some, she said, are young couples facing a loss of health insurance, who want to wait to get married until they can plan a more elaborate wedding. The county's domestic partnership registry is not open to heterosexual couples.

Assuming the governor signs the bill as he has promised, civil unions can begin in June. Greve said the process for getting a civil union will be nearly identical to obtaining a marriage license. It will not require applicants — straight or gay — to sign affidavits stating that they live together.

Attorneys in Illinois and other states that currently have or formerly had civil unions agree there is little chance of couples who aren't in a committed relationship forming civil unions purely for convenience.

"In New Jersey, it's not any easier to get out of a civil union than it is to get out of a marriage," said Stephen Hyland, an attorney who served on New Jersey's Civil Union Review Commission after the state opened up civil unions for same-sex couples in 2007. "The obligations for dissolving a civil union are exactly the same as in dissolving a marriage. You would see a potential for alimony, division of property, everything."

While no civil union provides a couple with federal rights — such as Social Security survivor's benefits or the ability to file joint tax returns — Illinois' civil union bill gives the couple access to all state-level marriage rights, including health care benefits from any company that offers a spousal plan.

This has been a dicey subject in the past for unmarried heterosexual couples.

Google Inc., for example, offered reimbursement for health insurance costs this year only to unmarried couples who were gay or lesbian, arguing that straight couples had the option of getting married. On the other hand, the federal government has made unmarried straight couples eligible for some benefits, including paid sick leave related to caring for their partners.

In 1999, a female clerk sued the Chicago Board of Education for allegedly discriminating against her and her male partner of 27 years by not providing medical and dental benefits when they were available to same-sex couples. A federal judge dismissed her claim of "reverse discrimination," ruling that the school district was not obligated to extend the benefits to unmarried straight couples.

By including heterosexual couples, the law also provides an avenue for straight couples to support gay rights.

"I've heard of couples saying, 'We won't get married until our gay and lesbian loved ones can also get married,'" said Jennifer Brown, a professor of law at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, which had a civil union law until same-sex marriage was legalized in 2008.

"I've heard of couples traveling to states where marriage is available to both same-sex and different-sex couples and having their weddings in that state as a show of solidarity," Brown said. "In Illinois, there's now this additional option for people, which would be to opt for a civil union instead of marriage."

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