Civil Union in Alton, Illinois

On January 31, 2011, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed into law the Senate Bill 1716 (“Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act”).  This Act allows same-sex couples the right to have all the legal benefits of heterosexual married couples, while still using discriminatory language to shade civil unions as a step down from marriages.  SB 1716 will not take effect until June 1, 2011, but the Bill has already created some chaos. 

The Beall Mansion Bed and Breakfast (407 East 12th St., Alton, IL) is probably the most popular enterprise for bed and breakfast outings and weddings in Southern Illinois.  But, when Todd Wathen contacted owners Jim and Sandy Belote (Jehovah’s Witnesses) to host Wathen’s civil union at the Beall Mansion, Wathen was refused service.  Wathen was similarly refused service for his civil union’s hosting at TimberCreek Bed & Breakfast, near Paxton, Illinois.  Timber Creek co-owner, Jim Walder, wrote, “We will never host same-sex civil unions. We will never host same-sex weddings even if they become legal in Illinois. We believe homosexuality is wrong and unnatural based on what the Bible says about it. If that is discrimination, I guess we unfortunately discriminate."

The Beall Mansion has had gay and lesbian couples stay the night at their inn, but only heterosexuals have ever been able to use the Beall Mansion’s wedding services.  Now that gay and lesbian couples have a very pragmatic use for the Beall Mansion’s wedding facilities (for civil union ceremonies), business owners are crying for their “right” to discriminate and religious “freedoms”, simply because they are capital owners. 

Dictatorial use of private property—property that is not simply for one’s personal use—leads to dictation of public policy.  If the Beall Mansion and Timber Creek are allowed to discriminate and prevent civil union ceremonies, the new right obtained by gay and lesbian couples to be equally acknowledged under the law is a farce.  Equality is more than a word or elaborations on paper.  Equality is equal access, equal treatment, and equal protection. 
This notion of property owners being able to completely dictate all marketing of their product or service is a throwback to racial segregation and Jim Crow.  Nonetheless, it is being defended by some religious fanatics, as well as some extreme Right-wing libertarians, like Rand Paul, who thinks businesses should have the right to discriminate service on the basis of race.  Jim and Sandy Belote’s religious heterosexism, convicted as they may feel, is a blatant form of discrimination that prevents consumers to freely access services for public policy to properly function.  Their beliefs are equally offensive to religious and political leaders in history who have opposed interracial marriages and supported Jim Crow racism. 

Underlying all of these contradictions is a slew of problems at the foundation of marriage that need resolving, as well.  Couples, groups, and singles should not even be granted different legal statuses on the basis of a political or cultural consummation.  Marriage has historically separated Christian, heterosexual, intra-racial couples from everyone else—and in many states, up into the 1980s, granting the man rights to sexually and physically abuse his wife at the defense of the state.  (North Carolina was the last state to repeal its defense of marital rape, in a 1993 State Court case.) Whether we look at its legal or cultural history, marriage has a very sexist and heterosexist past.  Still, marriage has been reformed, and it is important to support efforts to raise the status of those outside marriage’s norms.  In the short term, that may mean taking civil unions, and pushing for marriage equality; then taking marriage equality, and pushing for public policy to only recognize individuals for its application. 

Further, the Beall Mansion affair demonstrates the failure of private property to allow social policy to coherent function.  Public policy can change, and that can be fantastic; but if the resources to use that policy refuse to cooperate, those resources must be taken under the management of the people most effected by them—workers and consumers—and considered the property of all of society.  In 2005, Northern Illinois University surveyed Illinoisians on gay marriage and civil unions, finding that 34% supported civil unions, 31% supported gay marriages, and 29% opposed any legal recognition for same-sex couples.  That means that 65% of Illinoisians supported civil unions, at the least!

If almost two-thirds of the population would prefer equal legal status for same-sex couples, why has the legislature dragged its feet for the past six years?  And, when granted, what will it take to force private businesses to grant people their basic rights as consumers to services?  A very simple solution exists—have public policy ignore marriage altogether and nationalize service centers, putting them under the direction of workers, consumers, and the effected populace.  Until more popular, though, we must continue pushing for the acceptance of everyone to be acknowledged as equally human.  Whether in an instant or through a movement, we have to overcome heterosexism and marriage.

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