The Illinois House of Representatives passed a historic civil unions bill Tuesday evening after many moving speeches on the House floor.
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."
The vote was 61-52, and the legislation now moves to the state Senate, where it is expected to be passed quickly Wednesday and signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn. Tuesday afternoon, an Illinois Senate committee advanced its version of the civil unions bill by a 6-2 margin, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Many Democratic lawmakers stood up to announce their support of the bill before the vote--but two Republicans joined them as well. State Rep. Mark Beaubien (R-Wauconda) and Rep. William Black (R-Danville) both stood up and voiced their support.
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.
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.
Rep. Deb Mell, who is engaged to her partner of six years, gave a tearful and moving speech prior to the vote.
"I love my state. I am proud to live here," she said. "But my state does not treat me equally. . .
After six years of building a life together, committing our lives to each other, I assure you that we are a family."
Rep. Ron Stephens of the state's 102nd District near St. Louis, Mo. made an interesting case against the bill on the House floor before its passage--blaming "open homosexuality" for the fall of Rome, implying that civil unions would lead to the decline in American civilization.
"I believe that if this should ever pass, the next bill will be legalizing marriage between members of the same sex," Stephens said. "And I just think that's wrong. You might think I'm wrong in thinking that ... just call me an old-fashioned traditionalist."
Though a handful of the bill's opponents stood up, the debate was overwhelmingly positive.
"We think it's just the fair and decent thing to do," Rick Garcia, director of public policy for Equality Illinois, told the Associated Press early Tuesday. "It isn't scary. It's happening all over."