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Are Civil Unions 'Good Enough' for Same-Sex Couples?

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The Thomas More Society is a national public interest law firm that "exists to restore respect in law for life, marriage, and religious liberty." It fiercely opposes reproductive choice for women and marriage for same-sex couples. It recently sent a letter to all members of the Illinois General Assembly calling on them to oppose the pending bill that would legalize marriage for same-sex couples in Illinois. This is my response to their letter:

The Thomas More Society's recent letter makes a series of misleading assertions about the proposal in the Illinois General Assembly to extend the freedom to marry in Illinois to same-sex couples. In fact, the proposed law protects both equality and religious liberty and merits the support of all members of the General Assembly.

The Thomas More Society suggests that a law recognizing marriage for same-sex couples denigrates the marriages of opposite-sex couples and brands those who oppose same-sex marriage as "bigots." This is absurd. The proposed legislation does not compel anyone to endorse same-sex marriage, to marry someone of the same sex, or to change her religious beliefs. It does not in any way insult those who marry persons of the opposite sex or suggest that those who disagree with the law are "bigots." Rather, whether or not those who oppose marriage for same-sex couples are "bigots" is a judgment wholly independent of this legislation.

Same-sex couples want to marry for the same reasons opposite-sex couples want to marry. They want to marry because they want to make a deep personal and binding commitment to the person they love. They are no different in this respect than opposite-sex couples. To deny them this right is unjust, unequal and incompatible with our most fundamental moral tenet: "Do unto others. . . ."

The Thomas More Society insists that civil unions are good enough for same-sex couples. Such couples, they submit, do not need the "title" of marriage. They should be happy that the state allows them to have "civil unions." Would they feel that way, I wonder, if the law said that interracial couples or interfaith couples or Catholic couples or Jewish couples or African-American couples could not "marry," but must be content with having "civil unions"? I think not. And with good reason. For the denial of the "title" of marriage serves only one purpose -- to denigrate and diminish the dignity of the same-sex or inter-racial or inter-faith or Catholic or African-American unions. It is a mean-spirited and cruel insult to the loving commitments made by such couples.

The Thomas More Society argues further that for Illinois to recognize marriage for same-sex couples would violate the religious liberty of its members. But how is this so? No religion has the right to demand that the State act in accord with its own peculiar precepts. Moreover, under the proposed legislation, no church, no synagogue, indeed, no house of worship of any denomination is required to sanctify any union that is inconsistent with its religious tradition.

The Thomas More Society, however, wants more. It insists that every institution, every organization, every business that is offended by same-sex marriage must be allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples. It wants every hotel, every restaurant, every florist, every photographer, every car rental agency, and every homeless shelter to have the right to discriminate against same-sex couples if their marriage offends their religious or moral precepts. Nothing in our constitutional or legal traditions permits such blatant private discrimination.

To the contrary, under settled law, once a business or other organization holds itself out as a provider of services or accommodations to the general public, it may not then refuse to provide those services or accommodations to people because of their race, gender, religion, national origin, disability, marital status, sexual orientation or gender identity, even if equality offends the business's religious or moral values.

I am confident that, despite the complaints of groups like the Thomas More Society, the Illinois General Assembly will soon pass and send to the Governor the pending legislation. When they do, it will be a major step on our continuing national path to an ever-more just and more equal society.

Both the Thomas More Society's letter and this response were published in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.