Illinois Public Media News
Gay rights advocates celebrated Wednesday as the Illinois Legislature voted to legalize civil unions, although some wondered whether the measure that the governor is expected to sign will make it easier or harder to someday win approval of same-sex marriage.
The state Senate approved the legislation 32-24, sending it to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn. It passed despite complaints from some senators that civil unions threaten the sanctity of marriage or increase the cost of doing business in Illinois.
After Quinn signs the measure, gay and lesbian couples will be able to get official recognition from the state and gain many of the rights that accompany marriage - the power to decide medical treatment for an ailing partner, for instance. Illinois law will continue to limit marriage to one man and woman, and the federal government won't recognize the civil unions at all.
Five states already allow civil unions or their equivalent, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Five other states and Washington, D.C., let gay couples marry outright.
Some supporters of civil unions in Illinois hope they'll be a step toward full marriage.
"The ultimate goal is not to be separate but equal," said Jacob Meister, president of The Civil Rights Agenda, a gay rights organization. Meister said civil unions are a necessary compromise because they will provide important protections for gay couples.
But even advocates acknowledge it's possible that by accepting civil unions now, they may be delaying movement toward being able to marry. The compromise could weaken any arguments that gay people are being treated unfairly by not being allowed to marry.
The sponsors of the civil unions bill said Wednesday they don't plan to push for legalizing same-sex marriages, which have limited support in the Legislature.
"As soon as the governor signs it, it's the law of the state of Illinois and that's what we're going to live with and going to make work," said Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria.
The executive director of a gay community center in Chicago said he welcomes civil unions but worries the legislation may stall ultimate approval of same-sex marriage. Modesto Valle of the Center on Halsted said it will take "tremendous work" to turn civil unions into "a platform to move toward marriage equality" in Illinois.
Courtney Reid, 48, of Chicago said she and her partner of 12 years have decided they won't pursue a civil union, preferring to wait until same-sex marriage is recognized by federal law and homosexual couples get all the tax benefits and other rights available to heterosexual couples.
"It's a stand on principle for us," Reid said.
Supporters presented the civil unions legislation as a matter of basic fairness for all Illinois residents. With civil unions, state law will treat gay and lesbian couples as if they were married. They would inherit property when a partner dies, for instance.
"It's time for us to look history in the eye and not flinch," said Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg, D-Evanston.
Opponents argued it moves Illinois closer to legalizing same-sex marriages. They said civil unions are basically marriage by another name and that they could give the courts a reason to step in and order Illinois to allow full marriage to everyone.
Some senators also criticized the time being spent on civil unions at a time when the state faces a massive budget crisis.
"Here we are, forced to debate an issue that may be political payback to a small but very politically powerful special interest group," said Sen. Chris Lauzen, R-Aurora. He called gay sexual activities dangerous and questioned whether the state has a role in regulating relationships that don't produce children.
The Illinois Family Institute accused legislators of failing to examine the legislation clearly.
"Proponents engaged in embarrassing and maudlin displays of sentimentality intended to emotionally manipulate rather than intellectually persuade their colleagues," said executive director David E. Smith.
Cardinal Francis George and other Catholic leaders fought civil unions vigorously. Conservative groups also lobbied to block the measure. They argued it could hurt religious institutions.
The measure wouldn't require churches to recognize civil unions or perform any kind of ceremony, opponents acknowledge, but critics fear it would lead to other requirements, such as including same-sex couples in adoption programs run by religious groups or granting benefits to employees' partners.
Some religious leaders welcomed the legislation. In Chicago, Rabbi Larry Edwards said he's looking forward to planning celebrations for couples in his Jewish congregation who may decide to form civil unions under Illinois law.
"To those who say it's a slippery slope and eventually will lead to marriage, I say, 'I hope so,'" said Edwards of Or Chadash synagogue. "I would like to be on a slippery slope that slides in the direction of justice."
The Rev. Vernice Thorn, associate pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago said she considers the vote a hopeful sign. "Same-sex legalized marriage is going to happen. It's just a matter of when.
The Illinois House approved legislation Tuesday night that would position Illinois to become the sixth state to allow gay couples to enter civil unions.
An emotionally charged Illinois House narrowly approved the measure Tuesday night. Civil unions are not marriage, but under the proposal, same sex and heterosexual couples who enter one would receive many of the benefits - including hospital visitation and the power of attorney.
State Representative Deborah Mell (D-Chicago) said those are rights she is now denied because Illinois does not legally recognize her relationship with her partner.
"After six years of building a life together, committing our lives to each other," Mell said. "We have a strong faith in God and in family. And after all that we are still not considered family. And I assure you, we are a family. And we deserve the same rights that you enjoy."
Larry McKeon became Illinois' first openly gay legislator when he was elected to the Illinois House in 1996. He is not around to see his successor, Democratic Representative Greg Harris, usher through the legalization of civil unions. McKeon died a couple years ago from a sudden stroke, but his legacy played a role in the measure's passage ... as Harris recounted a tale of how McKeon tried to visit his longtime partner in intensive care.
"The hospital turned Larry away," Harris said. "They said he did not have the proper documentation with him. They did not consider him next of kin. He would have to go home. He would have to go home and find the documents."
By the time McKeon returned with paperwork proving his status, Harris said, McKeon had missed his partner's passing by mere minutes.
"Should anyone have to be absent from the side of the person they most love in life because they don't have access to the proper paperwork at the right time," he said. "Should this not be a right that every person in Illinois be granted?"
If the civil unions measure becomes law ... it will no longer be an issue. Harris lists the benefits it would trigger: "To participate in health care decision-makings, it would allow them to share a nursing home room, it would allow them to be the first in line to make a disposition about their partners' remains when he or she dies, and it would allow them rights in probate."
Harris, who is openly gay, noted that it is not just for same sex couples. It applies to heterosexual ones too. He said many elderly couples don't want to take on a spouse late in life because a new marriage would cut into their social security payouts.
Harris estimated that it is these heterosexual senior citizens who will most take advantage of civil unions. Entering one will be similar to getting married - couples would pay a county clerk for a license. Dissolving the partnership would require a legal proceeding similar to a divorce. There are differences. Only married people can get perks like filing joint income tax returns. Illinois law does, and still would, define marriage expressly as between a man and a woman.
However, critics like David Reis, a Republican representing the Effingham area ... say with approval of civil unions, Illinois is on a direct path to gay marriage. He warned its passage will lead to equal rights lawsuits that could result in a court order requiring Illinois let same sex couples marry.
"And it won't take long for your people back home to know that your vote tonight, while for civil unions and individual rights and hospital visitations, was really a vote for same sex marriage in Illinois," Reis said. "I don't think we're ready for this, I don't think the people of Illinois want this just yet."
Another Republican, Ron Stephens of Greenville, said allowing civil unions may contribute to the crumbling of America's future.
"If you look at the sociological history of a society that has failed, what are some of the commonalities," Greenville asked. "One of those is that open homosexuality becomes accepted in the higher society. Whether it's in Greek times, the Romans or others. And here we are at the precipice again."
Despite advocates' claims to the contrary, critics also say extending insurance and pension benefits to partners will hurt government and businesses' bottom lines. Opponents had cranked up their protest in advance of the debate with such arguments. Prominent Catholics, like the head of the Chicago Archdiocese, Cardinal Francis George, repeatedly called legislators, trying to sway them to vote no. Nonetheless, with a vote of 61 to 52 a solitary vote over the required amount it passed.
While Democrats were the main backers, handful of Republicans including Lake County's Mark Beaubien also lent their support.
"I don't think this is a partisan issue," Beaubien said. "I respect everybody's opinion on this and their believes. My only statement is there comes a time. And for those of you that are on the fence. Now is the time to support this bill."
Charlie Beall was in the House gallery watching it all happen.
"I was the first kid in my school to actually come out of the closet," he said.
The Senate is poised to take up the proposal Wednesday and its passage is expected. As Governor Quinn is an outspoken backer, it's likely to become law.
Beall is now a 19-year old student at Heartland Community College in Normal, but looks back at when he was 16 years old, a sophomore in high school. Just weeks after the football season ended, he first told his friends and family he was gay.
"Well, actually I was going to see my first boyfriend and I was on a date with him - not him," Beall explained. "I lied to my parents because I didn't want them to know."
After his parents discovered he had faked an alibi, Beall said he broke down, and began to hear hear taunts of "fagot" or "queer" when he walked down his high school's hallways. He said with the House's approval of civil unions, he is hopeful that mentality will not continue much longer.
"just the fact that I have almost the same rights as everyone else now," he said. "It changes a lot. And hopefully when I'm having children, my kids won't even know what that was like. To be repressed in a way."
Despite Beall's positive take is that some gay rights activists say they will not be satisfied until they get all of the rights afforded to heterosexuals, namely the right to marry. They say by supporting civil unions, they are settling for inequality.
The Senate's poised to take up the proposal Wednesday, and it's expected to win approval there as well. As Governor Quinn is an outspoken supporter, it's likely to become law. Quinn said it is an important civil rights issue, and called passing it the "right thing to do.
Legislation Seeks to Extend Immigration Rights to Same-Sex Couples
The U.S. Senate is expected to consider ending the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which bans gays from openly serving in the armed services. But there's another issue that many gay rights supporters are pushing. Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers reports on the political deadlock over legislation to extend immigration rights to same-sex binational couples.
Airline passengers are putting up with a new and often unwelcome level of security screenings, but a University of Illinois professor who studies aviation security said those searches may not be useful.
Thanksgiving-weekend travelers at the nation's largest airports reported few slowdowns or other problems with "backscanner" machines that give screeners revealing images of passengers. Those who turned down the scans are subject to intensive pat-downs.
Professor Sheldon Jacobson said he believes federal officials pay too much attention to searching for banned items, and that the high-level searches should not be the first line of defense against terrorists.
"The question is, is this an effective use of a very powerful technology? In our own research, we don't believe it is," Jacobson said. "We believe that using it for secondary screening is far more appropriate and will actually facilitate a far more secure system, which is very counter-intuitive in some sense."
Jacobson says more effective security should focus on a passenger's intent. He said the Transportation Security Administration needs to further its research on ways of filtering out passengers based on background checks and looking for behavioral red flags at the airport.
Two new reports released by the Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society shed some light on the state of underrepresented minority students at the University of Illinois.
The first report, which looks at graduate education at the U of I, refers to campus data from the 2009 Strategic Plan Progress Report and population statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.
In the study, African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians groups in 2009 comprised a little more than 30 percent of the state's population. Meanwhile, the percent of those groups represented in the U of I's graduate school was significantly lower at around seven percent.
"The University has a persistent problem of inequity," said U of I African American studies Professor Jennifer Hamer, who helped write the study. "This is a public university, a flagship public land-grant university, and we don't have a population that represents the state, let alone the nation."
The report also found that in fall 2009, there were no Hispanic, African American, and American Indian students enrolled in many graduate level programs.
University spokeswoman Robin Kaler issued a statement saying the university is committed to diversity in higher education, including graduate education.
"We have worked for many years to attract the best and brightest minority students to campus," Kaler said.
Hamer said she has been encouraged by conversations with the university's administrators about diversifying the campus.
"They clearly see diversity as a value to the campus," Hamer said. "Now, the question is how do they respond to that? Well, I think once you define something as a value, you set policy and practices that emphasize it."
Kaler noted some examples of campus-wide initiatives dedicated to attracting minority students to Illinois:
"Many initiatives across campus are dedicated to bringing excellent minority students to Illinois. For example, the Young Scholars Program in ACES, LAMP (LIS Access Midwest Program) in GSLIS, SURGE (Support for Under-Represented Groups in Engineering) and SROP (Summer Research Opportunities Program) and the Graduate College Fellows program in the Graduate College. Recently, the P&G Science Diversity Summit, a collaborative event among the College of ACES, College of Engineering, College of LAS and the Graduate College, brought partners from minority serving institutions to campus to create new partnerships and initiatives to support diversity in graduate programs at Illinois."
The second report released involved 11 focus groups with 82 minority students who were interviewed about their reactions to 'racial microaggressions' made in the residence halls (elevators, chalkboards, dorm room doors) and elsewhere on campus.
The report defined racial microaggressions as "race-related encounters that happen between individuals. Individual level encounters can be verbal, nonverbal, or behavioral exchanges between people. Microaggressions can also occur on the environmental level, which are race-related messages that individuals receive from their environment."
The report is coauthored by Drs. Stacy A. Harwood who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning; Ruby Mendenhall, an Assistant Professor in the departments of Sociology, African American Studies, and Urban and Regional Planning; and Margaret Browne Huntt, the Research Specialist at the Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society.
Hunt said students who were interviewed perceived racial slurs negatively, even comments that were considered harmless.
"What we were finding is that the students were receiving the various forms of racism to be as hostile, derogatory," Huntt said. "Some students actually contemplated leaving the university because of these forms of racism that take place."
Students in the study that saw racial slurs written in dormitory elevators stated that they were more upset about the slurs not being removed immediately.
"I went to the front desk and I told them about it and it was a Caucasian girl there and she was just like, we've been hearing about it all day, and she kind of blew it off," one student said. "Then my floor had a meeting about the whole situation and my RA told me that nobody told them about the racial slurs on the elevator."
The report concluded that faculty and students should undergo training to help identify and stop racism, even when it is presented in an unintentional and subtle way.
"Some students won't speak up in class cause they feel like when they do say things, students won't believe their experience," Mendenhall said.
Huntt and Mendenhall said they are not sure if offensive racial comments at the U of I correlate with the number of underrepresented minority students as this was not part of their study.
The fatal shooting last year of Kiwane Carrington is the driving spark of this year's Unity March in Champaign-Urbana. The 7th annual social justice march takes place Saturday, October 9th, one year to the day after the 15-year-old Carrington was shot and killed during a police altercation. The march is sponsored by C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice, Champaign County NAACP, the Ministerial Alliance of Champaign County, and the Graduate Employees Organization on the U of I campus.
Aaron Ammons of C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice said that while he thinks progress in city government has been slow, Carrington's death has inspired many people and groups to make new efforts towards positive change.
"I believe most entities and institutions have opened up, and are trying to see things from a different perspective, since the killing of Kiwane Carrington," Ammons said. "Honestly, I believe some of it is out of genuine desire to change, and some of it is political pressure that comes, but certainly, there's been a lot more talk and a lot more meetings among several different entities since the killing."
Ammons said the Unity March is aimed at inspiring empowerment among victims of poverty and injustice, so they can take their own steps towards change.
"There are things that we can do as far as our own food security," Ammons said. "For example, to grow some of your own food at the community garden, or at your own home. That's a really basic thing that surrounds the idea of empowerment."
Ammons said another example is teaching young people how to act in contacts with police.
The march begins at noon, 906 West Vine Street where the Kiwane Carrington shooting occurred. From there, marchers will proceed north on Prospect to Bradley Avenue, and then head west to the Randolph Street Community Garden. At the garden, fruit trees will be planted in Carrington's memory, and a garden party will be held, featuring food and music. Ammong said the march is open to all.
In addition, a pre-march symposium is scheduled for 6:30 PM, on Friday, October 8th, at the Asian American Cultural Center, 1210 West Nevada Street, Urbana, on the University of Illinois campus. The topic is "Other Deaths and Other Truths" Communities Confronting State Violence". The symposium is sponsored by the "Landscapes of Struggle in Illinois" Focal Point Group of the Independent Media Center of Urbana Champaign.
Last year's shooting death of Kiwane Carrington by a police officer was ruled accidental, but the officer involved, Daniel Norbits, was given a 30-day suspension for improper handling of his weapon, which he is appealing. Critics say the incident is a symptom of long-standing problems in Champaign police-community relations, particularly where African-American youth are involved. Champaign city officials say they've made several changes in police procedures in the wake of the incident.
If the city council approves on Tuesday, the city of Champaign will pay $ 470 thousand to the family of Kiwane Carrington, to settle a wrongful death lawsuit.
Even before the Champaign County state's attorney ruled that the shooting of the 15-year-old Carrington last October was accidental, his family had sued the city for wrongful death and survivors' benefits.
Champaign city attorney Frederick Stavins says the $470 thousand settlement is an effort by the city and the family to put Kiwane Carrington's death behind them --- and does not represent an admission of guilt by the city.
"There are no admissions in the case of negligence or wrongdoing," says Stavins. "What this does is, it brings peace between the parties. It allows the parties to go on. Speculating about what would happen now is a moot point."
Carrington was killed last October during an altercation with police investigating a report of a possible break-in at the home of a family friend where the 15 year old often stayed. The officer involved, Daniel Norbits, is appealing a 30 day suspension he received for not handling his weapon properly during the incident.
City Council member Will Kyles says he's ready to approve the settlement, if it's what the family wants. The Carrington shooting led to heavy criticism of Champaign Police relations with African-Americans, especially with young people. But Kyles says those relations have improved in the past year, thanks to increased community involvement.
"That's the key ingredient to healing, is community, city and police working together", says Kyles. "And I've seen a lot of that going with, with the Six Initiatives, CCAP, and the countless meetings that don't get broadcast, but occur on a weekly basis."
Kyles referred to City Manager Steve Carter's six initiatives for improving police-community relations, and the Champaign Community and Police Partnership, a city-organized panel of city and African-American community leaders. But Campaign officials have resisted calls from critics to form a citizen police review board, similar to the panel in Urbana.
Attorney James Montgomery, representing the Carrington Estate, says the family is pleased that the lawsuit has been settled. But Champaign City Council approval is still needed before any money is paid out.
Gov. Pat Quinn is sticking by his opposition to building a mosque near ground zero in New York despite criticism from a local immigrant rights group.
The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights on Friday called on candidates and elected officials to "stop injecting hate in the debate.''
Quinn said Friday he honors the patriotism of Muslim citizens but believes a group should rethink building a Muslim center and mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Quinn says there should be a "zone of solemnity'' around the site. He says any place of worship that takes away from the solemnity of ground zero should rethink their location.
He called his position "a matter of conscience.
The professor at the heart of a controversy over religious studies at the University of Illinois doesn't believe there's a permanent resolution to the dispute.
Kenneth Howell has accepted the U of I's offer to return to teach an introductory course on Catholic teaching, more than two months after he was let go. A student who was not in the class had complained of an email Howell had sent to one of his students defending the church's views on homosexuality and natural moral law.
Howell says the incident will not affect his teaching, except perhaps for a broader scope of issues covered at the end of the course.
"I'm going to give a general lecture on natural moral law because that's the essential part of Catholicism," said Howell. "Then I'll ask them (his students) if they want me to deal with the question of capital punishment or just war or homosexuality, and they will choose."
The U of I is now paying Howell for his work as an adjunct professor - until his removal in May, Howell had been paid by the St. John Catholic Newman Center, where he has now been reinstated as the head of the center's Institute for Catholic Thought.
A faculty-student committee on the Urbana campus is looking into the general issue of outside involvement in academics - Howell says he has not been asked to appear before that committee.
Champaign city officials are hoping for plenty of feedback on a draft version of their plan to improve police-community relations. The plan was posted on the city's website last week, and city spokeswoman Joan Walls says they'll be taking comments online through this Friday.
Walls says the plan is distilled from the input they received during the community forum they held on the issue last March. About 300 people attended the forum, which was held in the wake of the fatal shooting by a police officer of Kiwane Carrington last year. Walls says this is a chance for the forum participants to provide feedback on the plan developed from their discussions.
"We released this draft plan to the Forum participants as promised", says Walls, "to ask them to take a look at it, to make sure we've not lost any important information. And if there was something that maybe they heard at the Forum that perhaps was not included, to provide us with feedback. And so there's an opportunity for them to do that, through an electronic survey."
The draft plan lists 32 specific actions meant to improve relations between Champaign police and the community, especially youth.
Walls says the feedback from both forum participants and the general public will be incorporated into the draft plan to be discussed by the Champaign City Council at their August 24th study session.
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