June 2008Volume 2Number 1PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

All you need is love. . . And the right legislation: The Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act (House Bill 1826)

The Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act (HB 1826) was originally introduced in the Illinois House on February 23, 2007. HB 1826 confers substantive rights and responsibilities on partners who are joined in a civil union, which generally parallel the rights and responsibilities of married persons. Though it was subsequently amended to a more streamlined version of the original bill, it has been steadily gathering support from House representatives. Last summer, the ISBA Assembly voted to formally support HB 1826. As of this writing, the deadline for action has been extended to allow time to obtain sufficient support to ensure the bill is passed.

If the bill passes, Illinois would join Connecticut, Vermont, California, and New Jersey as states which have recognized some form of civil union between partners in either a same sex or opposite sex relationship. Another state, Massachusetts, has specifically legalized gay marriage. Though Chicago and some surrounding suburbs have “domestic-partner” registries, inclusion on the registries does not generally provide substantive rights.

HB 1826 recognizes and supports the diversity of relationships in the state of Illinois. The bill addresses the myriad of problems faced by those in committed relationships who are barred from marrying, or simply choose not to. Now, absent such legislative protection, unmarried couples in committed relationships are often left to provide for a partner by constructing a mosaic of protections. They may use reciprocal powers of attorney for property, powers of attorney for health care, trust agreements, and wills. They must exercise great care in the manner in which they hold property, and may also have contractual agreements which specifically govern each partner’s rights and responsibilities. Those couples with children must consider formal adoptions, guardianships and parenting agreements. Unlike married persons, there are no rights which automatically flow to them simply by virtue of their status as a partner in a committed relationship.

Summary of HB 1826

1. Purpose of HB 1826

The stated purpose of HB1826 is to provide “committed, adult, same-sex and different-sex couples the opportunity to obtain the same obligations, responsibilities, protections, and benefits afforded or recognized by the law of Illinois to spouses.” HB 1826, as originally introduced, highlighted the reasons the bill was introduced. First, it recognized that “marriage” is generally “the exclusive source of numerous protections and responsibilities under the laws of Illinois for parties to a marriage and their children” and therefore same-sex couples are denied these rights since they may not legally marry. Second, it recognized that many same sex couples have formed “lasting, committed, caring and faithful relationships” which involve living together, serving their communities, and rearing children, without the protections and responsibilities associated with marriage. Third, HB 1826 states that the passage of the bill would support Illinois’ “long tradition of respect for individual rights and responsibilities… and equal protection of the laws.”

2. Protections Afforded to Those in a Civil Union

HB 1826 generally provides that partners who choose to obtain a civil union would be treated as spouses for purposes of state substantive laws. The original proponent of HB 1826 included a non-exclusive list of the legal protections which would be offered to partners in civil unions These included protections afforded to spouses under probate law, trust law, property law, adoption law, and family law, including domestic violence. Further, the Act would allow non-married partners to bring lawsuits otherwise dependent on spousal status (including wrongful death, emotional distress, and loss of consortium claims). Under the Illinois Human Rights Act, partners in civil unions would also be protected against discrimination based on marital status. The Act would provide partners with spousal status as to health insurance, worker’s compensation, public assistance, and health care decision-making. A partner would also be afforded the privilege for marital communications contained in the Code of Criminal Procedure. Though the amendments do not delineate these specific protections, the general language of the amended HB 1826 would presumably include the rights under all of these laws.

3. Formation of a Civil Union

Formation of a civil union would be similar to the formation of a marriage. HB 1826 provides that two persons may form a civil union pursuant to the same requirements found in the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (“IMDMA”), 750 ILCS 5/501 et. seq. However, though the IMDMA provides that persons under the age of 18 may marry under certain circumstances, a party must be eighteen to form a civil union. Similar to persons who seek to marry, partners seeking a civil union must obtain a license and participate in a ceremony officiated by a judge, clerk, or a religious officiant. A certificate of the civil union must then be filed with the appropriate county clerk of court. The Act also provides that a religious body “is free to choose whether or not to solemnize or not to officiate civil unions.”

4. Dissolution of a Civil Union

Significantly, HB 1826 provides that a civil union may only be dissolved pursuant to the IMDMA. The IMDMA provides the statutory authority for the dissolution of marriage, including the determination of issues such as spousal support, property division, child support, and child custody. Thus, like a married couple, partners in a civil union must be “divorced.”

HB 1826 Responds to a Judicial Call for Action

Without the benefit of any state recognition, when a committed relationship ends, there can be unjust results under the law. When forced to resort to the courts, unmarried couples who have lived together and joined finances have attempted to advance theories of implied contract, constructive trust and unjust enrichment in order to recover a share of property accumulated during the relationship. Courts have not been sympathetic to such arguments. Rather, courts have invited, and perhaps encouraged, the legislature to address such situations. For instance, in Hewitt v. Hewitt, 77 Ill.2d 49 (1979), a woman argued that she was “living as” a married couple with a man, and was therefore entitled to an equal share of property which was accumulated by him during the relationship. However, they never were married. The Illinois Supreme Court explained that since common law marriage was abolished in Illinois, the myriad of theories she advanced could not overcome the fact that she was attempting to gain recognition for a common law marriage. The Court relied on an 1882 case holding that “an agreement in consideration of future illicit cohabitation” was void and held that:

The real thrust of plaintiff’s argument here is that we should abandon the rule of illegality because of certain changes in societal norms and attitudes. It is urged that social mores have changed radically in recent years, rendering this principle of law archaic. It is said that because there are so many unmarried cohabitants today the courts must confer a legal status on such relationships.... Even if we were to assume some modification of the rule of illegality is appropriate, we return to the fundamental question earlier alluded to: If resolution of this issue rests ultimately on grounds of public policy, by what body should that policy be determined?. . . The issue, realistically, is whether it is appropriate for this court to grant a legal status to a private arrangement substituting for the institution of marriage sanctioned by the State. The question whether change is needed in the law governing the rights of parties in this delicate area of marriage-like relationships involves evaluations of sociological data and alternatives we believe best suited to the superior investigative and fact-finding facilities of the legislative branch in the exercise of its traditional authority to declare public policy in the domestic relations field. Id. at 60.

More recently, in Costa v. Oliven, 365 Ill.App.3d 244 (2nd Dist. 2006), appeal denied, 2006 Ill. LEXIS 1494 (2007), an unmarried man who lived with a partner for 24 years and cared for the parties’ child sought a constructive trust over all of his partner’s property. The trial court dismissed the complaint, which was affirmed by the appellate court. The plaintiff attempted to overcome the effect of Hewitt by arguing that there had been “subsequent legislative activity and changes in social and judicial attitudes” since the time of the Hewitt decision. The appellate court rejected the argument and relied on a directive from Hewitt: “These questions are appropriately within the province of the legislature, and . . . if there is to be a change in the law of this State on this matter, it is for the legislature and not the courts to bring about that change.” Id. at 248.

Upon the end of a relationship, same-sex couples face additional hurdles, particularly when children are involved. While the law generally provides a means for biological parents to exercise a panoply of rights with regard to the raising of their children, same-sex couples raising children do not necessarily have the same protections. In the case of In re Visitation with C.B.L., 309 Ill.App.3d 888 (1st Dist. 1999), a lesbian couple who decided to have a child by artificial insemination ended their relationship. The partner who did not carry the child was denied all visitation with the child, despite the fact that she had participated in the preparation for the child’s birth and in raising the child. The court found she lacked standing, but noted that “this court is not unmindful of the fact that our evolving social structures have created non-traditional relationships. This court, however, has no authority to ignore the manifest intent of our General Assembly.” Id. at 894. In another case, In re Marriage of Simmons, 355 Ill.App.3d 942 (1st Dist. 2005), appeal denied, 216 Ill.2d 734 (2005), a person who was born a female who suffered from “gender identity disorder” began a course of hormone treatments which resulted in her achieving the physical appearance of a man. In 1985, he legally married a woman. The couple decided that the wife would undergo artificial insemination. She gave birth to a child, and the husband was listed as the father on the child’s birth certificate. The parties lived together as husband and wife until the child was six years old, when the husband filed for divorce. The court found that the husband lacked standing to seek custody since “same sex marriages” were not legal and the marriage was void ab initio. The court also found that he lacked any parental rights to the child.

HB 1826 is perhaps the first response to the invitation pointedly made by the Hewitt court and reinforced in subsequent court decisions. It may be that changes in social mores and current sociological findings have rendered some laws archaic. As discussed in Hewitt, our state legislature, as in other states, has been compelled to address the “delicate area of marriage-like relationships.” So often, laws provide a set of rules to follow when we have disputes with others. When we experience a car accident, a leaky roof, or a failed marriage, we look to the law to provide the tools to resolve our dispute in a fair and dignified manner. The current laws fail to provide a suitable framework to govern the most significant of relationships for many members of our society. Perhaps we are well-served to remember the words of William O. Douglas, the longest-serving U.S. Supreme Court Justice: “The search for static security—in the law and elsewhere—is misguided. The fact is security can only be achieved through constant change, adapting old ideas that have outlived their usefulness to current facts.”


As of this writing, HB1826 remains pending. Those who would like further information on the bill may visit http://www.civilunionsillinois.org/ .  The Web site includes a discussion of the bill, as well as a template which may be used to urge your local legislator to support the bill.

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