CHICAGO (Reuters) - Twenty-five Illinois gay and lesbian couples sued the state for the right to marry on Wednesday, a year after same-sex couples in Illinois were granted the right to enter into civil unions.
Six states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry. The couples suing in Illinois say the civil union status sends the message that the state regards their relationships as inferior.
One case filed by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union is led by Tanya Lazaro and Elizabeth Matos, who have two children and rejected registering as a civil union.
"We love each other; we are committed to one another," said Lazaro, a Chicago police detective, in a statement. "Anything short of marriage does not recognize that love and commitment."
The couples filing suit say that many people do not understand civil unions, and do not afford civil unions the same respect.
The ACLU represents nine of the couples suing, while Lambda Legal, a gay rights organization, represents another 16 in a second suit.
President Barack Obama endorsed same-sex marriage earlier this month, and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat, also supports it.
A legislative route to gay marriage in Illinois does not seem likely any time soon. A gay marriage bill introduced in the Illinois House of Representatives stalled in this session and awaits action in the fall. Bill sponsor Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat, said the bill lacked support this time around, with the legislature preoccupied with the state's fiscal crisis.
Peter Breen, executive director and lead lawyer of the Chicago-based Thomas More Society, which opposes gay marriage, said that the gay marriage lawsuits have no merit under the state constitution and that the primary purpose is to "excite a political and fundraising base in a heavily contested political cycle."
Breen said same-sex marriage has been rejected by voters in 32 states.
"We fully expect the state's attorney and the attorney general's office to defend the constitutionality of state laws," Breen said.
Illinois civil union law gives same-sex couples the same rights, benefits and responsibilities of married couples under Illinois law, including rights of hospital visitation and shared parental rights. The Illinois law also recognizes unions performed in other jurisdictions.
Harris said he sponsored the gay marriage bill because while civil union status is an advance, "separate but equal is clearly unequal."
"If you're still having to carry all your legal documents in the glove compartment of your car" in case of emergency, "we have not fixed the underlying problems of inequality," Harris said.
Gay marriage is legal in Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and New York as well as the District of Columbia. Legislatures in Maryland, Washington state and New Jersey have passed same-sex marriage bills but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed it and there are challenges to the new laws in Maryland and Washington.
Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune and Eric Walsh