They’re trying to get out of town or at least the General Assembly by Thursday, so state reps returned to the floor Wednesday night to race through remaining business. One of those bills was the controversial civil unions legislation. Apparently, all the fervor expressed in an outpouring of citizen appeals to legislators didn’t match the force exerted by party heavyweights on those legislators once it came time to vote.

Some lobbyists working the halls in Springfield through the final hours and minutes before the session reconvened were already seeing this as a done deal, reporting  that party leaders were ramping up the pressure to vote ‘yes.’ They were right. Within minutes after it passed, HuffPo touted this victory for backers of the bill with an interesting name:

SB1716, the “Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act,” was co-sponsored by openly gay Rep. Greg Harris, who worked tirelessly on the legislation.

“We have a chance today to make Illinois a more fair state, a more just state, and a state which treats all of its citizens equally under the law,” Harris said on the House floor. “We have a chance here, as leaders have had in previous generations, to correct injustice and to move us down the path toward liberty.”

And that’s how it has been posed, as an issue of injustice and denial of liberty.

Civil unions would provide legal recognition of gay couples and give them some of the same benefits automatically available to married couples, including the right to visit a sick partner in the hospital, disposition of a deceased loved one’s remains and the right to make decisions about a loved one’s medical care.

But Cardinal Francis George parsed and clarified the issues of rights involved in a recent letter to the Illinois General Assembly.

Senate Bill 1716 seeks to afford all the “legal obligations, responsibilities, protections, and benefits” of marriage to individuals in a civil union. There are literally hundreds of references to married “spouses” throughout Illinois’ law to which parties to a civil union will now be included. These references are not limited to hospital visitation rights (which are already afforded same sex couples via Presidential Executive Order) or property rights (which can be provided for through legal arrangements). They include benefits from the state Pension Code, the legal guardianship of children and other provisions that govern married life in Illinois.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that homosexuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” Accordingly, we stand ready to work with the legislature and other agencies of state government to prevent unjust discrimination and to provide benefits to people judged by the civic authority as deserving – as long as such provision does not include the attempted redefinition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman for the sake of family.

Cardinal George pointed to “an inherent conflict between this legislation and religious liberty,” and named a few key concerns. The Catholic Conference of Illinois did the same, earlier (click on talking points).

While the bill states that nothing in the Act should interfere with or regulate the religious practice of any religious body, such language may offer little protection in the context of litigation that religious institutions could face under the bill if adopted.  Among the questions that could emerge include:

-Will Catholic Charities be required to place foster children or adoptive children with couples in same sex marriages / civil unions?
-Will faith-based institutions, such as schools, be compelled to hire a partner in a same sex marriage / civil union even if it interferes with a core aspect of the institution’s ministry?
-Will faith-based institutions be compelled to pay for benefits for same sex couples even if this conflicts with core tenets of the beliefs of that institution?
-Applications for permits and licenses with various levels of government require compliance with all laws.  How will those applications be affected if the state recognizes same sex marriages / civil unions while the applicants that are faith-based institutions do not?

Which gets back to the interesting name of the bill. HuffPo reports:

The Illinois Religious Freedom and Civil Union Act will also protect the rights of religious institutions to define marriage as they choose, and will be available to any couple, same-sex or opposite-sex, in a committed relationship who are: 18 years of age or older, not in an existing marriage or civil union, and are not related. It would take effect July 2011.

It doesn’t explain how the second point flows seamlessly from the first, or how the two can co-exist with equal protection under law. But surely, the Huffington Post will be on that, soon.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....