Illinois became the 12th U.S. state to grant legal recognition to same-sex couples as a new civil unions law took effect on Wednesday.
The new law provides same-sex couples about 600 rights that heterosexual couples have in the state, including surrogate decision-making for medical treatment, survivorship, adoptions, and accident and health insurance.
More than 75 couples were in line by the time the doors opened early at 7:30 a.m. at the Cook County Building in downtown Chicago, where the vital records office will stay open until 7 p.m. to accommodate couples. Officials said they expect to issue about 2,000 licenses the first day.
At the head of the line were Lakeesha Harris and Janean Watkins, who got there at midnight. The Chicago couple, together for 10 years, have six children and a home but say they always felt relegated to second-class status, until now.
“We’ve been ostracized and relegated to the bottom rung of society,” said Harris, 36. “I feel like this is some sort of justice for us, for our family. I’m so grateful. I’m thankful.”
The Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act passed in the Illinois General Assembly during the lame duck session following the November 2010 election. It was signed by Gov. Pat Quinn on January 31.
Ahead of the law taking effect, the Rockford, Ill., Catholic Diocese announced last week that it would discontinue adoption and foster care programs rather than be forced to serve same-sex or unmarried opposite-sex couples under the new civil unions law. Other Catholic charities in the state have threatened to take similar action.
Illinois is now the sixth state in the U.S. to offer civil unions to same-sex couples. Five states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. Hawaii and Delaware have also passed civil union laws that have not yet taken effect.
Illinois law will continue to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.