Equal rites: Same-sex marriage in Illinois nears legality

The church and reception venue have been booked.

The save-the-date cards have been mailed.

And deposits to the caterer and wedding cake designer have been made.

While there's still plenty to do before they tie the knot in the chapel of the University Place Christian Church on July 12 in Champaign — find unique wedding bands, firm up the menu and apply for a marriage license, to name a few — Rob McKinney and Tyler Leasher say preparations for their special day are going smoothly.

"Tyler and I have had an absolutely wonderful time putting this together," said McKinney, who began gathering ideas for wedding attire, floral centerpieces and other decorations on the night they got engaged.

"All of the big stuff is done," said Leasher, who according to his fiance, has kept the planning process organized and on track. "Now we're working on the details ... like making sure everything is as personalized as possible, so it's not just another wedding. It's all us."

When the Champaign couple got engaged on Aug. 9 while vacationing with Leasher's family on the Florida coast, they thought they might have to settle for a civil union. Earlier in 2013, on Valentine's Day, the Illinois Senate voted to legalize same-sex marriage but the bill stalled in the House all summer.

Then on Nov. 5, following the U.S. Supreme Court declaring parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, state representatives narrowly passed an amended version of the measure. It was passed quickly by state senators and signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn on Nov. 20.

Leasher and McKinney were in their car heading to Leasher's folks' house for dinner when a live broadcast of the House vote came over the radio. They listened anxiously, even as they heard cheers erupting in the background.

"When they announced it (had passed), it was kind of a surreal moment," recalled Leasher, whose emotions have taken a roller-coaster ride as he watched legislation move forward, then hit a brick wall. "We just looked at each other and smiled. It was one of those moments when you didn't have to say anything."

"People have those moments when something happened, and they always remember where they were," McKinney added. "That will definitely be one of those moments for me."

Now the two will be one of thousands of couples who are expected to exchange vows once same-sex marriage becomes legal in most parts of Illinois 99 days from today.

***

The Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act will put same-sex couples on equal footing with opposite-sex couples, said Randy Hannig, director of public policy official for Equality Illinois, the state's oldest and largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization.

It's set to take effect on June 1. However, on Friday, a federal court ordered the Cook County clerk's office to begin issuing marriage licenses immediately, allowing same-sex weddings to take place there as early as today.

The decision stemmed from a class action lawsuit filed by Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberites Union on behalf of all Illinois same-sex couples who apply to marry in Cook County prior to June 1. The two groups also filed an emergency motion seeking the immediate issuance of marriage licenses to two couples and other same-sex couples facing terminal illness.

"It changes everything basically," Hannig said of the legislation. "There's not going to be same-sex marriage or straight marriage. It's going to be marriage. And all same-sex couples will have the same rights, benefits and responsibilities that straight couples have had for hundreds of years."

Those include being able to file joint federal income tax returns, put a spouse on a health insurance policy without being taxed and take unpaid time off work to care for an ill spouse.

"It's also having the right to be at your spouse's bedside at the hospital and make end-of-life health and financial decisions for a spouse to being able to be buried next to your spouse in a military cemetery — some of those smaller things you don't think about," Hannig said, adding that those privileges are currently reserved only for opposite-sex couples in states where same-sex marriage is illegal.

Beyond legal rights, Hannig said, "It means that same-sex couples across the state will finally be able to stand up before their loved ones and their families and make a lifelong commitment and basically tell the world ... not that they're in a civil union or a domestic partnership. They're married."

Under legislative rules, the new law couldn't take effect immediately. For that to happen, the House bill would have had to pass with a super majority, or 71 votes.

Hannig said his organization is using the time to help educate the public on the new law.

"It's been a great opportunity to reach out to the community and answer questions," said Hannig, who recently held a public forum in Champaign, one of 22 throughout the state, to answer questions about converting civil unions into marriages, among other things.

Equality Illinois has also been working with state agencies and all 102 county clerk offices to make sure officials understand — and will correctly implement — the law.

"They're the ones who will be on the front line when people come in to get their marriage license or have questions about upgrading their civil unions," Hannig said.

***

LGBT advocates expect thousands of couples, some of whom have been waiting for decades, will begin lining up for marriage licenses once the new law comes into play. But just how many is hard to pin down.

The most recent census figures show that roughly 35,000 to 40,000 same-sex couples were living in Illinois in 2010, Hannig said. But, he pointed out, a portion already could be in a civil union or, like him and his husband, wed in a state where same-sex marriage already is allowed.

Before Friday's federal court ruling, Hannig said he's heard of a number of groups that are organizing mass wedding ceremonies, all in the Chicago area, on June 2 and 3. In Illinois, all couples must wait at least 24 hours after their marriage license is issued to get married.

The new law allows couples in civil unions to voluntarily convert them to legally recognized marriages during a one-year grace period.

Hannig said roughly 5,300 couples applied for civil unions between June 1, 2011, when the state legalized them, and December 2012, and more followed in 2013. Officials anticipate the majority were same-sex couples. "We've found that the vast majority plan on converting their civil union to a marriage," he said.

That's what a number of local couples — including Timothy Grider and Shane Mills-Grider, of Danville — are opting to do.

Together for 10 years now, Grider, an X-ray technician at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Healthcare System, and Mills-Grider, a cosmetologist, had a civil-union ceremony at Mann's Chapel, south of Rossville, and a masquerade ball-style reception at Harrison Park Clubhouse in Danville on Oct. 13, 2012.

At the ceremony, the couple — barefoot and dressed in white tuxedos — symbolically buried "you" and "me" and became "we" before 120 relatives and friends. Grider issued a call to action as part of his vows.

"I wanted everyone to make equality and love the pinnacle of their lives, and everything they fight for," said Grider, who a year later gathered with 2,000-plus supporters at the University of Illinois-Chicago to watch the signing of the historic marriage bill.

"Our life is so full now," he said, explaining why the couple see no need for another ceremony. "We have exactly what we need. I don't think we need anything more."

***

Nearby in Tilton, another man was waiting to propose to his love of 19 years.

On the evening of Feb. 13, business owner Todd Schultz strategically placed a stuffed bear holding a rose and a card next to the time clock where Paul Bernardi, who's also one of his employees, would punch in for work the next day. When Bernardi opened the card on Valentine's Day, he teared up as he read the message: "Will you marry me on July 12?"

"We had talked about (marriage) before, but I wasn't really expecting it," said Bernardi, who answered "yes," then joyfully announced his engagement on Facebook.

By the following Monday, Bernardi said 75 people had asked for a wedding invitation, four had volunteered to officiate the ceremony and many more had offered to make the cake, play DJ or help out in some other way.

The couple moved in together three months after they started dating. So in their hearts, they have felt like a married couple for years.

But Schultz and Bernardi said they wanted to wait to make their union legal until they could have the same rights as opposite-sex couples.

"That's what it's all about for me — equality," said Schultz, a longtime member of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest advocacy organization for LGBT Americans. "I always thought it would happen someday. For us, it opens up several doors. We can file our (federal income) taxes jointly, which will save us money. I can put him on my health policy. And I've had some health issues."

The couple recalled a time when Schultz was hospitalized. Bernardi wasn't allowed in Schultz's hospital room, even though he had been his partner's health-care power of attorney for 18 years.

That's just one of the reasons why the state's civil union law fell short, Hannig pointed out. That law, he said, does give same-sex couples the right to be at their spouse's hospital bedside.

But "most people just don't know what a civil union is," Hannig said, adding marriage needs no explanation.

He said many couples, such as Schultz and Bernardi, have had their rights infringed upon because people aren't aware of the law or don't understand it. He pointed to another example of a lesbian couple. One was taken to the hospital in critical condition after she was involved in a serious car accident. When her spouse arrived a few minutes later, she explained that she was in a civil union with the injured woman.

"The nurse just gave her a blank stare," Hannig said. "Luckily, the wife ended up being OK. ... It's cases like that that we've been hearing about all over the state ... that showed us civil unions weren't enough."

"Being together 19 years, we already have our relationship established," Bernardi said. "But now other people will recognize it, too."

In the coming months, LGBT advocates will continue working to ensure there are no major snafus, and Leasher, McKinney, Schultz and Bernardi will move forward with their wedding plans.

Both couples look forward to making their bond official and sharing the milestone event with loved ones.

"These are memories that other people get to make, and we're finally going to be able to make them, too," Schultz said.

"We're not trying to be role models," Leasher said. But "I definitely think it will show them that marriage is possible, and you can have that story-book happily-ever-after ending, whereas a couple of years ago, it wasn't possible."

Right of way

Married couples and their families now enjoy 1,138 rights and protections under federal law — and 648 under Illinois law — that same-sex couples do not. Among them:

— Privilege from testifying against a spouse in court

— Access to "family-only" services, such as reduced-rate memberships to clubs and organizations

— Right to visit a spouse in a hospital or prison

— Automatic inheritance, even without a will

— Right to change surname upon marriage

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