- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 1, 2010

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — The Illinois Senate on Wednesday approved civil unions, putting Illinois on the verge of granting official recognition to gay and lesbian couples.

The measure passed 32-24. It now goes to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, a strong supporter.

The state House of Representatives on Tuesday evening voted 61-52 to approve the bill. House Democrats broke into applause after the vote was final, giving the bill’s sponsor a standing ovation.

“It’s a matter of fairness. It’s a matter of respect. It’s a matter of equality,” said the sponsor, Rep. Greg Harris, Chicago Democrat.

Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, and other Catholic leaders have fought civil unions, but Mr. Quinn, who is Catholic, said he has no reservations about supporting the measure.

“My religious faith animates me to support this bill. I think that people of good faith, maybe, can disagree and have different points of view,” Mr. Quinn said.

With civil unionsIllinois law would treat gay and lesbian couples as if they were married. They would inherit property when a partner dies, for instance, and they could make medical decisions for each other in an emergency.

Illinois law would continue to reserve the word “marriage” for unions between a man and woman. And federal law wouldn’t recognize the civil unions, meaning gay Illinois couples couldn’t file joint tax returns.

Emotions ran high during the House debate.

Rep. Deborah Mell, Chicago Democrat, broke down as she discussed the possibility of her partner, Christin Baker, falling seriously ill. She said current law would bar doctors from consulting her about Ms. Baker’s condition because they have no official recognition.

Many legislators mentioned former Rep. Larry McKeon, who was Illinois‘ first openly gay lawmaker. Hospital administrators turned Mr. McKeon away when his longtime partner was dying, saying he had to go home and get documents proving he had the right to visit. By the time Mr. McKeon was able to get the document and return, his partner had died.

“It’s appalling that anybody would think that’s OK. It’s not OK,” said Rep. Lou Lang, Skokie Democrat.

On the other side of the debate, Rep. Ron Stephens quietly insisted his opposition was based on principle, not animosity toward homosexual people. “Just call me an old-fashioned traditionalist,” the Greenville Republican said.

Few lawmakers spoke against the legislation. Those who did argued civil unions are a step toward legalizing same-sex marriage, perhaps by court order.

“Are you ready for gay marriage? Because that very well could be what comes out of this,” said Rep. David Reis, Willow Hill Republican.

Lobbyist Rick Garcia had a response for such concerns: “You are correct.”

Mr. Garcia, director of public policy for the gay-rights group Equality Illinois, said he considers civil unions a poor substitute for marriage but hopes the move eventually leads toward marriage rights for gay couples. He and other supporters say same-sex marriage has little support in the Legislature right now, so civil unions are the most they can get.

At least five states already offer civil unions. A handful of others have legalized same-sex marriages.

Critics also have argued the legislation could hurt religious institutions, even though its official name is the “Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act.”

The measure wouldn’t require churches to recognize civil unions or perform any kind of ceremony, opponents acknowledge, but they fear it would lead to other requirements, such as including same-sex couples in adoption programs run by religious groups or granting benefits to employees’ partners.

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