Same-sex Metro East couples line up to get civil union licenses

Author: Doug Moore
Publication: St. Louis Today
Publication Date: June 2nd, 2011

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The couples that lined up at the St. Clair County Courthouse on Wednesday to be among the first in the state to get civil union licenses all shared the same sentiment.

They wanted to be part of history and to punctuate their commitment with a document demonstrating they are legally recognized by the state of Illinois as a couple.

For Kristin Shelby, 38, and Amanda Buldtman, 31, of Herrin, Ill., getting a civil union license served two purposes. The first, Shelby said, is to finally share many of the rights granted to opposite-sex couples when they are married.

The second is to be a legally recognized couple before their first child comes into the world. His arrival is scheduled for tonight after Buldtman's doctor induces her labor. Her due date was Monday.

"We've been together almost 14 years, and now we can have rights as a couple," Shelby said. "Our families are great, but you never know what might happen in the event of an emergency and one of us is in the hospital. Emotions take over. So we wanted to have this."

The new civil union law provides most of the state legal rights of married couples in areas such as hospital visitation rights, health insurance and property ownership. But the federal government and most states don't recognize same-sex partnerships. So couples with civil unions still have to file federal taxes as two single people. And there is no certainty that the license would grant them hospital visitation rights if they were in another state.

Sarah Baldwin said that while civil unions are not on par with marriages, Illinois is headed in the right direction.

"It's a small step forward," said Baldwin, 35, of Shiloh. "We could have gone to another state to get married, but we wanted to be legally together here in our home state." She and Heather Sowell, 38, will have a ceremony next month to mark their union.

Illinois joins seven other states that currently allow civil unions or broadly defined domestic partnerships for same-sex couples but not formal marriage. They are California, Delaware, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington.

Five other states offer fully equal marriage rights for same-sex couples: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. The District of Columbia also allows same-sex marriage.

The majority of states, including Missouri, have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage.

The new Illinois law did not come without controversy. The bill passed the Senate 32-24-1 in December after passing the House by a one-vote margin a day before.

One of the most vocal opponents is Rep. Ron Stephens, of Highland. He calls the new law an opportunity to degrade values that some hold dear.

And other states have been stung by moving forward on same-sex relationship rights.

Last year, three Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of same-sex marriages were voted out of office. And in California, voters in 2008 supported a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage after the state Supreme Court earlier that year ruled in favor of the unions. Today, California grants full rights to same-sex couples but does not marry them.

Gay rights activists say they will continue to push for same-sex marriage in every state.

A Gallup Poll last month of 1,018 adults suggests that for the first time, a majority of Americans supports same-sex marriage. When the question was first posed 15 years ago, only 27 percent of those polled said they supported the unions. That percentage grew to 42 percent in 2004. Today, it's 53 percent.

"There is no question the momentum is strongly in favor of ending the discriminatory patchwork and treating gay people equally," said Evan Wolfson, president of New York-based Freedom to Marry and author of "Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry."

He said civil union partnerships are important but still not where America should be with granting equal rights to gay couples.

"It's better to have some protections than none, but people in Illinois are still vulnerable to uncertainties and inequality that comes from being denied the freedom to marry."

Locally, the demand was not strong for civil union licenses on the first day. By midafternoon, 14 licenses had been issued in Madison County, compared with seven in St. Clair County and one in Monroe County.

Dianna Thomas, 45, and Debra Scarlet, 54, of New Athens, exchanged vows 17 years ago. Now, with their civil union license in hand, their relationship is legally recognized. The women, both pastors at Well of Living Water Ministries, a nondenominational church in Belleville, say they are doing what Christians are to do: obey the laws of the land. They hope the new law eventually applies in all states.

"We believe there has to be equality for everyone," said Thomas, 45.

The women plan to renew their vows, most likely next month, Scarlet said.

Those who applied for civil union licenses on Wednesday will have to wait at least a day before formalizing the unions with a judge, retired judge or religious official. That same rule applies with marriage licenses. However, a county judge can issue a waiver, allowing for a same-day ceremony.

One was granted in St. Clair County, to Shelby and Buldtman.