New civil union law brings little change to Evanston

Marshall Cohen

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Over the summer, Illinois became the sixth state to officially recognize same-sex civil unions.

The Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act went into effect on June 1, when Gov. Pat Quinn signed it at a Chicago ceremony. But on campus and around Evanston, the law hasn’t really changed the status quo.

The Alice Millar Chapel, 1870 Sheridan Road, has been performing same-sex ceremonies for a while, University Chaplain Tim Stevens said.

“I haven’t personally been involved in a civil union ceremony since the new law went into effect, but our policy is that the chapel is made available to anyone who has an affiliation with Northwestern University, regardless of his or her sexual orientation,” Stevens said.

Similarly, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 1509 Ridge Ave., has been welcoming same-sex couples into its community.

The Rev. Debra Bullock became the new pastor at St. Mark’s just days after the civil unions legislation was signed into law. As a lesbian who entered into a civil union with her partner in New Jersey in 2007, Bullock has preached a message of tolerance to her new Evanston congregation.

“The first blessing of a same-sex union was done here about a decade ago,” Bullock said. “This is an inclusive community and we call ourselves a church for all seasons where everyone is welcome, and we truly mean that.”

The pastor said that after the new law went into effect, a couple from Oregon traveled to St. Mark’s for a “solemnization of holy union,” the service that the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago has authorized for same-sex civil unions.

However, outside of Evanston, the law generated greater controversy.

David Smith, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, said the law leads to discrimination against religious organizations.

“We warned our lawmakers that the law would affect religious liberty as we worked against the passage of the bill,” he said. “Both religious freedom and special rights for those people who self-identify by their sexual preferences just cannot coexist.”

The Catholic diocese in Rockford announced in June that it would end its state-funded adoption program. They opted to shut down the program instead of complying with the law, which allows gay and unmarried couples to have equal access to adoption services.

Furthermore, two hotels in central Illinois faced legal action after refusing to host a civil union reception for a gay couple in June. A report released last month by the Illinois Department of Human Rights found that there was “substantial evidence” that the couple’s civil rights were violated.

But there were also many groups that did support the law, including Equality Illinois and the Human Rights Campaign.

Randy Hannig, director of public policy for Equality Illinois, was pleased with the execution of the new law.

“So far we haven’t had any major glitches in the system,” said Hannig, a Northwestern alum. “There were a few minor problems back in June, but those were all resolved pretty quickly.”

The law allows gay and lesbian couples to enter into civil unions and gain many of the rights that married couples enjoy. These rights include hospital visitations, adoption and parental rights, inheritances and benefits for pensions.

According to Equality Illinois, more than 1,600 civil unions have been registered in 83 different counties across the state since the law went into effect in June.