Lawsuits Seek to Legalize Gay Marriage in Illinois
11:51 am - 05/30/2012
*UPDATED* Groups say barring same-sex couples from marriage is unconstitutional
Building on the momentum of President Barack Obama's recent support of gay marriage, two major civil rights groups in his home state filed lawsuits Wednesday in hopes of legalizing same-sex marriage in Illinois.
The two lawsuits — brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and the New York-based Lambda Legal — represent 25 couples statewide. Both challenge a state law that defines marriage as between a man and woman, arguing that the Illinois Constitution guarantees the right for same-sex couples to marry under due process and equality clauses.
"It's time for Illinois to recognize the love and commitment of these couples," said John Knight, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Project of the ACLU of Illinois. "We've waited long enough."
Knight said Obama's comments, as well as Gov. Pat Quinn's backing of gay marriage earlier this month and nationwide polls showing increasing public support for same-sex marriage set the stage.
The filings come a year after Illinois enacted civil unions, but many couples in the lawsuits said civil unions made them feel like second-class citizens.
Lambda Legal's lawsuit, which has 16 couples, includes Chicagoans Patrick Bova and Jim Darby. They've been together for 48 years and hope to marry by their 50th anniversary. They entered into a civil union last year, but said they want their relationship to be recognized in the same way as their heterosexual friends.
"I have bought so many toasters for so many weddings," Darby joked Wednesday at a news conference. "I want someone to buy me a toaster."
The 25 couples in both lawsuits tried to apply for marriage licenses in Cook County, but were denied.
It's unclear how Illinois will handle the cases' legal process, but attorneys with the advocacy groups are ready to take them to the state Supreme Court. The defendant named in the case, Cook County Clerk David Orr, is personally in favor of gay marriage. Several messages left for Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, who would represent Orr, were not immediately returned Wednesday.
A spokeswoman said Orr was out of the country and had not seen the lawsuit, but issued a statement on his behalf.
"The time is long past due for the State of Illinois to allow County Clerks to issue marriage licenses to couples who want to make that commitment," the statement said. "I hope this lawsuit clears the last hurdle to achieving equal marriage rights for all."
Currently, the District of Columbia and six states — Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont — have legalized gay marriage. Courts decided for gay marriage in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa. A lawsuit, filed by Lambda Legal, challenging an Iowa law that barred gay marriage prompted the Iowa Supreme Court to legalize it in 2009.
Legislation to eliminate language that prohibits gay marriage is pending in Illinois, but a vote isn't expected before the session is scheduled to end this week.
Illinois' civil unions give same-sex couples some, but not all, of the same legal rights and protections as marriage, such as the power to decide medical treatment for a partner and to inherit a partner's property. When that law was approved last year, opponents — including some religious and conservative groups — said it was a step toward gay marriage.
Republican State Rep. Mike Tryon, of Crystal Lake, voted against civil unions last year, and took a similar stance on gay marriage Wednesday.
"I firmly believe that a marriage is between a man and a woman, and it should stay that way," Tryon said.
Some opponents also said the advocates were skirting what the public wants by taking it to the courts.
"Going around the will of the people is not the right way to change an institution that has thousands of years of history and is sound in its reasons for existing," said Peter Breen, executive director of the Chicago-based Thomas More Society. The public interest law firm opposes gay marriage.
Breen said the lawsuits would not hold up in court under the constitutional arguments and only a handful of states had succeeded in doing so.
However, Northwestern University political science professor Andrew Koppelman said the fact that both civil rights groups, which are selective about their cases, had stepped forward showed the lawsuits likely have a strong chance.
Lambda Legal is a national legal organization that advocates for the civil rights of homosexuals, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV. It and the ACLU share the same goal of legalization, but decided to pursue separate lawsuits because the groups have different missions. The lawsuits also slightly differ in legal reasoning.
Plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit, which includes nine couples, are Chicago police detective Tanya Lazaro and systems analyst Elizabeth Matos. The couple, who has been together 15 years and has two children, reject the notion of a civil union.
"It's not the same thing as a marriage. We want our relationship, our love and our commitment we've shown for 15 years to be recognized like everybody else's," Lazaro said. "When you're growing up, you don't dream of civil unions."
Nine couples filed a lawsuit in Illinois on Wednesday to challenge the constitutionality of a state law that denies same-sex couples the right to marry.
The lawsuit, filed in state court, comes a year after Illinois implemented civil unions for same-sex couples, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement.
The nine couples are being represented by lawyers from the ACLU.
A separate lawsuit was filed Wednesday by Lambda Legal on behalf of 16 same-sex couples who are also seeking the freedom to marry, the ACLU statement said.
"The coordinated cases signal the organizations' shared commitment to ensure that the government treats all families fairly," it said.
Across the nation, 29 states have approved constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.
Six states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages, while five states -- Illinois among them -- allow civil unions between same-sex couples.
The lead plaintiffs in the ACLU-backed case in Illinois are policewoman Tanya Lazaro and systems analyst Elizabeth "Liz" Matos, of Chicago's Northwest Side, the ACLU said.
The pair, who have two young daughters, have chosen not to enter a civil union.
"Our relationship is not about some legal benefits and protections, but about love for one another," said Lazaro, quoted by the ACLU. "We love each other; we are committed to one another. Anything short of marriage does not recognize that love and commitment."
Many campaigners also reject civil unions as an unacceptable alternative to having the right to marry.
"What defines a marriage is love and commitment, our hopes and dreams for a life with the person we most love in all the world," said John Knight, director of the ACLU of Illinois' LGBT Project.
"Creating civil unions -- a separate, novel and poorly understood status for gay and lesbian couples -- does not honor the devotion of our families, nor fully protect them, but instead sends a powerful message that our families are inadequate and undeserving."
President Barack Obama announced his support of same-sex marriage, a change in his position, on May 9.
Previously, the president had been murky on his personal view of the issue, saying he was simply "evolving" on the issue after having once opposed it, which left many in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community displeased.
But while he satisfied many on the left by taking a firm stand on same-sex marriage, certain groups --including some black evangelicals and so-called Reagan Democrats -- expressed dismay over his decision.
Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage came a day after North Carolina voters passed a state constitutional amendment banning legal recognition of such marriages and other types of gay unions.
Voters in Minnesota, Washington, Maine and Maryland will vote on whether to amend their states' constitutions to ban same-sex marriage in November.
The battle around same-sex marriage in Illinois headed to court Wednesday.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and Lambda Legal each filed lawsuits in Cook County Court seeking marriage for same-sex couples in Illinois.
“It is time for Illinois to recognize the love and commitment of these couples and thousands of others by allowing them the freedom to marry," said John Knight, LGBT project director for the ACLU of Illinois.
"I don't think we want to wait on courts," Quinn said. "I think in Illinois, we are able to show the nation that we are a state that believes in respecting everyone. Everyone has dignity and rights."
The court fight is coming, though.
Lambda Legal, representing 16 same-sex couples, claims that barring the couples and their children from marriage is a violation of the Illinois Constitution's guarantee of Equal Protection and Due Process.
"Civil unions do not satisfy Illinois' guarantee of equality because they single out a group of people, treat them differently under the law, and deny them the fundamental right to marry," said Senior Staff Attorney Christopher Clark in a statement.
Clark said Lambda Legal is taking the case to court because "it is the job of our courts to uphold the Constitution and protect individual freedom."
In February, three lawmakers filed a House bill they called the "Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act." The proposed legislation aimed to eliminate the part of state law that prohibits gay marriages and offer same-sex couples the marriage rights available to heterosexual couples. The bill was since pulled.