Representing 25 couples throughout the state, Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union ( ACLU ) of Illinois have filed two separate but coordinated lawsuits against Cook County aimed at winning marriage equality in Illinois.
"We cannot justify waiting any longer," said Camilla Taylor, national marriage project director of Lambda Legal.
[ See related story, ACLU, Lambda file for marriage in Illinois, at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/ACLU-Lambda-file-for-marriage-in-Illinois/37883.html . ]
The May 30 lawsuits, filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County names Cook County Clerk David Orr ( Orr has personally been supportive of LGBT rights for years ) .
In both lawsuits plaintiffs argue that civil unions, which began in Illinois almost a year ago to the day, have failed to deliver on the promise of equality both practically and symbolically.
"When you're a kid, you don't dream about growing up to get a civil union," said Richard Rykhus, a plaintiff in the ACLU suit. "You dream about getting married."
Rykhus and his partner, Carlos Briones, have been together 11 years. The two were married in Canada in September 2005 and are raising a son together. But in Illinois, their marriage translates to a civil union, a status they struggle to explain to their seven year-old, Ty.
"It's important for him to know that this family is as important as any other," Briones said.
Briones and Rykhus are one of nine couples represented in the ACLU suit, which opens with plaintiff stories.
John Knight, ACLU LGBT project director, argued that civil unions have had a year to work but have failed to grant the same benefits and protections promised to LGBT families as marriage. Many civil-union couples have had to prove their status to hospitals and other agencies with paperwork, a burden not placed on married couples, Knight said.
"There's just no other way to meet the constitutional requirements," he said.
An additional 16 couples are represented by Lambda Legal, 15 of whom already have civil unions. The couples all attempted to obtain marriage licenses from the Cook County Clerk but were denied. The lead plaintiffs in that case are Jim Darby and Patrick Bova, longtime activists for LGBT veterans' rights.
The case hinges on the assertion that everyone has a right to marry the person that they love and that denying same-sex couples marriage rights deprives them of equal treatment under the law.
"Civil unions brand these couples as worth less than other families, and children feel that," said Taylor.
Taylor added that for many families, the symbolic significance of having a civil union is not on par with marriage.
The couples say that civil unions also fall short in practical ways.
Humboldt Park couple Angelica Lopez and Claudia Mercado keep documentation of their family in their car at all times, in the event that they cross state lines into Indiana to barbecue with friends. Their glove compartment contains birth certificates for their two children, adoption decrees showing that both of them are legal parents, their civil union certificate and power of attorney documentation for each other.
Even still, they concede that having a civil union is not a guarantee that their relationship will be recognized.
"It's really confusing for a lot of people," said Mercado. "What is a union?"
Because their second child was born after their civil union, both Mercado and Lopez are legally his parents in Illinois. However, Mercado completed a second-parent adoption for him to ensure she would be a recognized parent in other states. When they went to pick up the birth certificate, only Lopez, the birth mother, was allowed to pick up the certificate.
"Here I am standing in line, watching my partner sit by the person who instructed us that only one of us has to go," said Lopez.
Marriage equality activists have long argued that civil unions set up a "separate but equal" dynamic, in which same-sex couples are denied marriage simply for the sake of setting them apart from heterosexual couples.
Since civil unions went into effect last June, Windy City Times has documented several instances where government entities, hospitals, organizations and employers either failed or struggled to react accordingly to the new unions. The Illinois Department of Revenue initially announced that same-sex spouses would not be able to file joint state tax returns, but later reversed that decision amid protest from LGBT advocates.
Openly gay state representatives introduced a marriage-equality bill to the General Assembly earlier this year, but that measure failed to move.
Both the ACLU and Lambda Legal say that same-sex couples cannot wait any longer.
"We've always said that civil unions were not the end that we were fighting for," said Knight. "We've been talking about this for a long time, but we thought it was important to give civil unions a chance to work."
According to Taylor, the Lambda suit is more than a decade in the making.
Lambda has sued in other states for marriage equality in recent years including in Iowa, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Hawaii, California and Washington.
The Illinois suits seek both marriage certificates for the plaintiff couples as well as a statewide ruling that would allow couples to marry.
While the suits are directed at the Cook County Clerk, their success would presumably set a precedent for the entire state, Taylor said.
The Cook County clerk's office has been the target of an untold number of marriage equality protests over the years, but current Clerk David Orr has also been a longtime supporter of LGBT rights. In an interview last year with Windy City Times, Orr said he had a very difficult time not issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples who asked, sometimes to the point where he wanted to protest with them.
"It was a drag," he said. "And the only thing that really keeps you going is the hope that things will get better."
Here is a list of couples from both complaints:
Tanya Lazaro and Elizabeth "Liz" Mato, Chicago
Lynn Sprout and Kathie Spegal, Champaign
Ross "Randy" Walden and Robert "Bob" Carey, Springfield
Michelle Mascaro and Corynne Romine
Tim Kee and Rick Wade, Marion
Carlos Briones and Richard Rykhus, Evanston
Suzanna Hutton and Danielle Cook, Bloomington
Kirsten and Tanya Lyonsford, Aurora
Ed Hamilton and Gary Magruder, Plainfield
Jim Darby and Patrick Bova, Chicago
Daphne Scott-Henderson and Ryan Cannon, Bloomington
Michelle Chappell and Michelle Franke, Champaign
Daryl Rizzo and Jaime Garcia, Chicago
Lynne Burnett and Robyne O'Mara, Godfrey
Patricia Garcia and Julie Barton, Evanston
Bert Morton and Lee Korty, Springfield
Theresa Volpe and Mercedes Santos, Chicago
Robert Hickok and Brian Fletcher, Oak Park
Peggy Burton and Donna O'Crowly, Bloomington
Lakeesha Harris and Janean Watkins, Chicago
Angelica Lopez and Claudia Mercado, Chicago
Tim Rice and Don Julian, Alto Pass
Anne Dickey and Laura Hartman, Rock Island
Brandon and Kevin Bowersox-Johnson, Urbana
Bob Proctor and Hector Martinez, Peoria