Same sex couples can legally marry in Illinois starting June 1, but many members of the LGBTQ community have questions about how the new marriage equality law will be implemented, prompting a handful of elected officials to host an informational forum Wednesday night on the North Side of Chicago.
“The Cook county clerk is the only clerk in Illinois that can legally marry people – I don’t know why the law is in there but that’s what it is, maybe the other clerks didn’t want it,” said Cook County Clerk David Orr. “So the nice thing for me, as soon as that comes, I will be able to also conduct ceremonies.”
Hosted at the Loyola Park Fieldhouse, at 1230 W. Greanleaf Ave., the informational forum covered topics ranging from converting civil unions into marriages to changing names and filing state and federal tax returns as married couples.
“We won,” said Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois, who joined Orr and other elected officials, including Ald. Joe Moore (49th), State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) and State Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago), for the forum.
“We won this debate,” Yohnka said. “Our opponents, these are just the last vestiges of opposition that we’re seeing, it is over. We’ll fight hard in other states going forward, but we have won this debate.”
Click through to view video from Wednesday's informational forum.
Marriage licenses, which cost $60, will be available from county clerks to same-sex couples on June 1. Couples must appear together in person to apply for a marriage license. Also, a marriage license is only valid for 60 days from the calendar day after it is issued, meaning a couple must have a marriage ceremony within 60 days of application to receive a marriage certificate.
Couples already in civil unions will have the marriage license fee waived within the first year of the new law. Until May 31, 2015, couples can convert their civil unions into marriages at one of the Cook County Clerk’s six office locations. That marriage will be effective from the date of the couple’s original civil union, and a marriage license will be signed immediately at the office.
One highly-discussed topic at Wednesday’s forum stemmed from one attendee’s question about which employers can opt out of offering health care benefits to employees who are married to a member of the same sex.
“Any non-religious entity that offers benefits to married couples, or to the spouses of employees, will have to offer them to the spouses, even if the spouses are same-sex spouses. So, in that sense, you’ll have full family coverage,” Yohnka said. “The religious thing is a little sticky, because what is a religious institution?”
“The truth is, you could never compel a church to recognize a union or marriage that they don’t sanctify, and if they don’t sanctify it, they don’t recognize it and they don’t have to provide the benefits.”
Yohnka questioned the definition of a religious institution, and whether universities and private businesses, whose owners have conservative beliefs, could qualify as such an entity.
“The general rule would be, unless it is a church, or an entity related to the advancement of the religious doctrine, they should have to provide those benefits,” Yohnka said.
Steans, who sponsored the legislation in her chamber and attended Wednesday’s forum, predicted the health care “fight” would eventually be litigated in court.
“I spent way too many hours negotiating this bill with representatives from the archdiocese,” she said, adding that religiously-affiliated hospitals and schools should have to provide spousal health care benefits to same-sex couples.
“I can tell you the archdiocese was not happy with the language we ended up with on this, but I do believe that this is going to be litigated,” said Steans. “It’s going to be tested in the courts, there are going to be cases on this.”
Wednesday’s speakers each encouraged the forum’s attendees to carry marriage licenses on their person at all times, in case a same-sex couple would need to prove the legitimacy of their relationship during an emergency situation.
“I travel with my children’s adoption papers,” said Cassidy, an openly gay legislator and sponsor of the bill in the Illinois House. “Until it is assumed that every couple is just a couple, having those additional layers of protection will be useful—having the durable power of attorney for health care—and carrying those things with.”
Cassidy, Orr and Steans each promoted the purchase of pocket-sized marriage certificates. Offered by the Cook County Clerk’s office, a set of two officially embossed, legal marriage certificates that fit in a wallet is available for $15.
“Until the world really, really changes, you’re going to want all of that stuff,” said Cassidy. “(Marriage equality) is not a magic bullet, it’s a great thing, but we do need to make sure we’ve covered all of our bases, particularly if you’re traveling, having that documentation with you is going to be important.”
Denise Daugherty, an attendee of the forum, said one of the most useful pieces of information she walked away with was the fact that, upon marriage or civil union, same-sex couples are entitled to a free name change in Illinois.
Couples would need to show a copy of the marriage or civil union certificate to the Secretary of State’s office.
Daugherty, who had a civil union with her partner of two years, Jeannine Oakes, in August, said she was under the impression name changing was a costly and arduous process. She said she planned on calling the Secretary of State’s office Thursday morning to initiate her name change.
“This was great, all of my questions are answered—for now,” she chuckled. “I’m sure more questions will come up later, though.”
Daugherty said she and Oakes plan on converting their civil union into a marriage as soon as possible.
“I feel a lot more comfortable, more at ease, like this is really happening,” she said. “I am excited.”