Illinois Catholic Conference Misleads About Federal Marriage Benefits

It’s crunch time this week for the Illinois House of Representatives to pass marriage equality, and the Catholic Conference of Illinois is trying to mislead potential supporters. Criticizing a Chicago Tribune editorial endorsing the legislation, Executive Director Robert Gilligan offers some confusing suggestions for how same-sex couples in civil unions can get federal benefits:

Lawmakers two years ago approved civil unions, granting participants the same legal benefits given to married couples in the state. The editorial states civil union partners are missing out on federal benefits, legal protections and tax advantages because they aren’t married. These benefits are covered by federal law – not state law. The proper venue to get these benefits is not through an Illinois marriage license, but through legislation in the U.S. Congress.

While it’s true that the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is the current obstacle for same-sex married couples to access federal benefits, many are optimistic the Supreme Court will overturn that law at the end of June, which means it likely wouldn’t have a chance to apply to Illinois’s law before it takes effect. Gilligan is clearly trying to convince lawmakers that they don’t have to act to protect same-sex couples by misstating how those families can actually access their benefits. Contrary to his claims, the federal government defers to states to define marriage and issue licenses — DOMA is an exceptional law in how it limits which of those marriages the federal government can recognize.

Regardless of DOMA, the federal government does not recognize civil unions for the hundreds of benefits it offers to married couples. The only way for Illinois couples to ever receive them is if they have access to marriage under state law.

Given Gilligan’s opposition to the law, it’s unlikely he has any legitimate interest in ensuring the same legal and economic security for same-sex families as other families enjoy. Instead, this feigned concern is clearly a ruse to sway lawmakers into not supporting access to those very protections.