Civil Union Law Passed In Illinois

On January 31, 2011, Gov. Pat Quinn signed IL SB 1716, Religious Freedom and Civil Union Act, into law. The new law defines a civil union as a legal relationship between two persons of the same or opposite sex. Further, the law states that couples, under a civil union, are entitled to the same legal obligations, protections, and benefits afforded by Illinois law to spouses.  The law becomes effective on June 1, 2011.

What does this mean for Human Resources Management?  Will you have to change your health and benefit programs?  What about your employee handbook?  Don’t forget about the leave-of-absence policies where a ‘spouse’ needs definition.  Unless you are an experienced HR Professional, it may be a good idea to use an outside service to ensure that all of your policies are compliant and up to date with new laws.  In the mean time, let’s explore a little bit more into how this new Illinois law will affect business in it’s state and the six others that have passed similar laws.

The big point here is that the word ‘spouse’ now needs redefinition in many policies and handbooks.  Any condition that may extend to “family,” “immediate family,” “dependent,” “next of kin” and other terms that denote “spousal relationship” will need to be reviewed.  To determine whether or not your company is required to change their health/benefits plans, you need to see whether or not you are subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (you may not be required to offer coverage for same-sex spouses/domestic partnerships if your benefits plan is subject to ERISA).

Because the law passed in Illinois gives same-sex marriages more power than does federal law, there is a unique conflict when you bring in the Federal Defense of Marriage Act which defines marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife,” and the word “spouse” refers to “a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”  However, to avoid the discrepancy of whether or not you are required to provide health insurance and benefits to the spouse of your employee engaged in a civil union, you may consider voluntarily  offering additional insurance and/or coverage.  This avoids any potential claims stemming from the conflict between the state and federal level.

Though it gets sticky when dealing with who is and who is not qualified to receive benefits and insurance, keep in mind that there are professionals who are here to help.  Also, try to step back from the inner-workings of the laws and consider what is fair.  If you do not want to deal with potential claims, again, consider voluntarily offering coverage/benefits to the spouse of your employee no matter what.

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