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BREAKING NEWS: Illinois governor makes history, signs civil-unions bill into law

CHICAGO – In front of a crowd of more than 1,000 people at the Chicago Cultural Center, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law the historic “Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act.”

The signing ceremony took place today at 4 pm. Couples -- gay and straight -- may begin obtaining civil unions and enjoying the state-level rights and responsibilities of married couples on July 1, 2011.

More than 700 people were expected to attend the ceremony.

Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, the bill's lead sponsor, told The State Journal-Register that the biggest problem leading up to the historic moment was the amount of people wishing to be a part of it.

Prior to the ceremony, the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus entertained and energized the crowd, ending with song "Brand New Day" as crowd awaited Gov. Quinn.

“The most exciting thing about Illinois is that we’re a welcoming, accepting place. That’s what we are doing today," Quinn said to the crowd. "It is special honor to be part of this day in history. Our state began in 1818 and here we are in 2011 on the eve of Lincoln’s birthday because we believe in civil rights and civil unions.

"We believe in America, in what Lincoln said at Gettysburg. A government by the people, for the people. We believe in liberty and justice for all, that’s what animates today. Everyday we should look for ways to serve, and today is a special day of service. We had a great out pouring of grass roots democracy, showing the world that here in Illinois, almost 13 million strong, even though not everyone agrees when the majority speaks we listen."

Gov. Quinn acknowledged the work of Rep. Harris, stating he embodies Lincoln's spirit. Rep. Harris approached the podium to the sound of a thunderous applause.

“If you know Gov. Quinn, you know he has a lot of sayings," Harris said, sharing his favorite one. " 'Let the will of the people be the law of the land' and today thanks to your work and the work of the thousands of men and women, gay, straight, bi and trans, young people and seniors, we are here. But there is more work to get done; things can get better."

Harris continued by reading the preamble to the Constitution before he said, "Our union was not perfect, it is not perfect, but we must continue to strive and fight to secure the blessing of freedom and prosperity for all. Although we celebrate another milestone, our work still continues. We must fight in the world, and in our nation. Generations of proud Americans have risked their lives so that we may have the freedom to improve it today.”

Rep. Deborah Mell also addressed the crowd, receiving an equally loud applause. Her voice wavered as she thanked her father for his years of support, both at home and at protests and rallies.

“My father used to say, ‘If your daughter and son come to you and tell you that they’re gay, and you have a problem with it, you don’t deserve to call yourself a parent’ -- That’s the kind of support I have at home," Mell said.

She discusses her inspiration, her activism and the realization that “the act of being out and telling our story was one of the more powerful things” she could do. “I am so proud and honored to celebrate this with you today and to be a citizen of Illinois,” Mells said.

Illinois Attorney Gen. Lisa Manning also addressed the crowd.

“With this new law, same sex couples will have the same protections that we heterosexual couples take for granted. “No longer will same sex couples be denied the nearly 650 rights, benefits and protections of Illinois law,” Manning said. “What this really means is that you can build and protect your family. A right we should all have regardless of gender of our partner. This is a giant step towards equality.”

Paraphrasing the words used on the Senate floor on the day of an election, Manning said. “This is an opportunity to make a more fair state, a more just state, and a state that treats everyone equally under the law.”

Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford was the last to address the crowd before Gov. Quinn formally signed the bill with multiple pens that he handed out.

“I am from a small town in central Illinois and I am a Republican, and I am proud of it. As this bill move forward, I felt I just needed to do the right thing," Rutherford said. "January 2009 I resigned from the Senate as the civil unions bill made its way through, and my very last bill of 18 years as part of the Senate was to vote yes on the civil unions bill.

"I know that traveling all over Illinois that there are people who are uncomfortable but know this must go forward, I am proud to be from a small town, a Republican and to be here today.”

Following the applause, Gov. Quinn said, "This is the moment long after we are gone, people will remember us. On Jan. 31, 2011, we came together in Illinois, the land of Lincoln and made history."

The crowd grew silent as Gov. Quinn signed the bill, before standing and erupting into a thunderous applause and cheering, as civil unions were signed into law.

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, House Speaker Mike Madigan and Sen. Dave Koehler were also on hand to witness the historic moment.

Gay groups applaud Illinois

"Illinois is taking an historic step forward in embracing fairness and extending basic dignity to all couples in our state. We commend Governor Quinn for signing this bill," said John Knight, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Project of the ACLU of Illinois.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, also applauded Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn for signing this new law and for his commitment to ensuring civil unions became law.

“Today marks a tremendous step towards equality for all families in Illinois,” HRC President Joe Solmonese said. “Congratulations to Rep. Greg Harris, lead sponsor of the bill, who fought for years to ensure civil unions would become a reality, and thank you to Equality Illinois and the ACLU of Illinois for their tireless efforts on behalf of the LGBT community.”

The new law will permit both same-sex and opposite-sex couples to enter into civil unions and receive the same benefits, protections and responsibilities under Illinois law that is granted to spouses. Couples who enter into a civil union will not receive any rights or benefits under federal law.

Illinois still does not permit same-sex couples to marry. The law explicitly allows religious entities to choose not to solemnize or officiate civil unions.

"We look forward to the day when Illinois joins other states across the nation by making marriage available for all Illinois citizens," said Colleen Connell, executive director of the ACLU of Illinois. "This new law suggests that the day of complete fairness for lesbian and gay couples is not far away in the Land of Lincoln."

Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, also applauded Gov. Quinn and the Illinois legislature for "passing and signing this important recognition of gay and lesbian couples" but also called for the legislature to "finish the job."

"Time and again states that have created civil union as a means of both giving and withholding – providing select legal protections while withholding the freedom to marry and all its meaning – have found that civil union falls far short of marriage with all its tangible and intangible significance in our lives," Wolfson said. "Many of those states – Connecticut, New Hampshire, and even Vermont, which first created civil union – have since pushed past civil union to marriage, recognizing the inadequacy and unfairness of a separate and unequal status.

"There is no reason to have two lines at the clerk’s office when we can all share in the same responsibilities, same respect, and same rules of civil marriage.”

In addition to Illinois, 12 states plus Washington, D.C., have laws providing an expansive form of state-level relationship recognition for gay and lesbian couples. Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C., provide marriage to same-sex couples under state law.

New York and Maryland recognize out-of-jurisdiction same-sex marriages, but do not provide marriage licenses to same-sex couples in state. Five other states – California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington – provide same-sex couples with access to almost all of the state level benefits and responsibilities of marriage, through either civil unions or domestic partnerships.

Colorado, Hawaii, Maine and Wisconsin provide gay and lesbian couples with limited rights and benefits, not all rights provided to married couples. An attorney general opinion and subsequent court ruling in Rhode Island resulted in limited recognition of out-of-jurisdiction marriages of same-sex couples.

California recognized marriage for same-sex couples between June and November of 2008, before voters approved Proposition 8, which purports to amend the state constitution to prohibit marriage equality. Couples married during that window remain married under California law, but all other same-sex couples can only receive a domestic partnership within the state. The state will recognize out-of-jurisdiction same-sex marriages that occurred before Nov. 5, 2008, as marriages and those that occurred on or after Nov. 5, 2008, as similar to domestic partnerships.

Same-sex couples do not receive federal rights and benefits in any state.

View HRC's ectronic map to see where marriage equality stands in the states.

The new Civil Union Tracker

To support families protected by the new law, Lambda Legal and Equality Illinois launched the Civil Union Tracker.

"We have had a surge of calls to our Legal Help Desk since November when the law passed the legislature," said Camilla Taylor, senior staff attorney at the Midwest Regional Office of Lambda Legal in Chicago.

"By launching Civil Union Tracker with our partners at Equality Illinois, our goal is to provide a much needed service to same-sex and different-sex couples in civil unions, and to their children,” Taylor said. “Many will have questions about what the law means.

“We also know from experience in other states with civil unions that many families will encounter difficulties in getting respect for their status as legally recognized families after the law goes into effect. Our goal is to help these families navigate Illinois' new legal landscape with as few challenges as possible."

Lambda Legal has already responded to a flood of questions about civil unions by providing a civil union FAQ.

Couples can register online through Civil Union Tracker to get their questions answered, share stories, and gain direct access to information related to their new rights and responsibilities.

In addition to same-sex couples seeking to protect their families, civil unions provide protections for different-sex couples, including widowed senior citizens who want state-level recognition for a new relationship.

Civil Union Tracker is available to any Illinois couple that chooses to enter into a civil union, or whose relationship will be treated as a civil union under the new law.

"As we continue to fight for marriage equality, Civil Union Tracker is a way for Illinois residents to communicate their unique experiences," said Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois. "Through these stories, we can provide a necessary service to the community while we celebrate the progress we are making. At the same time, we need to document the harms that result from excluding lesbian and gay couples from marriage and relegating them to a separate status."