Thursday, May 26, 2011

Civil Union Forum at the North Branch of the Peoria Library

You have got to hand it to the City of Peoria. When they do something right, they do it well. The new library is absolutely beautiful inside, and was a perfect place to hold the Civil Union Forum. About 60 people gathered to be informed on the legal and procedural impact of the law that will take effect on June 1st.

The event was hosted by the Peoria branch of the ACLU and President C. Paul Miller acted as emcee. Upon opening the event, he quickly acknowledged Matthew A. Woodmancy as a member of the audience, letting the attendees know that Matt is a candidate for the Democratic Congressional nomination for the 18th District here in Illinois. He then introduced the speakers for the evening, Karen Sheley, a staff counsel from the Chicago ACLU, Jacob Meister, the Founder and President of the Civil Rights Agenda, an advocacy group in the Chicago area for LGBT rights, and Peoria County Clerk Steve Sonnemaker.

Ms. Sheley spoke first, detailing the activities leading up to the historic legislation and speaking of the ACLU's 40 year history of defending the rights of the LGBT community. The gist of her talk was her continued advocacy for the right of LGBT persons to marry. Civil Unions, she pointed out, are a great leap forward in recognizing the rights of Gay and Lesbian partners to enjoy domestic protection under Illinois Law in areas of spousal privilege, tax benefits, and property rights, but can be challenged at the Federal level. The repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, is the ultimate goal of the ACLU, so that Federal statutes will include all forms of marriage under their protection.

Mr. Jacob Meister, who also bears the distinction of being the first openly gay man to run for the United States Senate, spoke next. He addressed some of the legal ramifications of the new law and the protection it now affords Civil Union partners. Under the new law, joint tax returns may be filed for the state, as well as rights of inheritance protections. Also, the new law will provide statutory relief for persons who wish to end their civil union (divorce), and afford both members legal entitlements and protections as well. He briefly covered a wide range of topics, and also added his voice to that of Ms. Sheley's in stating the repeal of D.O.M.A. is the ultimate goal of his organization.

Peoria County Clerk Steve Sonnemaker assured members of the audience that his staff was prepared to handle the influx of persons seeking to obtain a civil union. His mood was cheerful and at times jovial, and he praised his staff for taking the time to be prepared for this new duty. He pointed out that the Civil Union law made no provision for any variance of age (persons can be married with parental permission as early as age 16, whereas civil unions can only be granted to persons 18 and older), and that he would withhold any announcement of civil union application at the request of the applicants. Otherwise, he stated, the application process will be very similar to the application for a marriage certificate.

A question and answer session followed where all three speakers took various questions from the audience. After the formal session was over, participants stayed and made themselves available for individual questions.

Also present at the event were Elaine Hopkins, author of Peoria Story, and Father Scott West of St. Luke's Church.

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