Illinois students use Facebook group to lobby for civil unions bill

By Nguyen Huy Vu

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – When Phil Miatkowski created an online group to support civil union legislation in Illinois, it was meant to be just an easy way to keep friends informed.

A year later, the group on the social networking site Facebook has swelled to nearly 9,000 members. The legislation’s sponsor sought members’ help to lobby for the measure which would be the first of its kind in the state. And they’ve generated thousands of faxes and e-mails to state lawmakers, organized rallies and circulated petitions.

“Every time I log on, it’s getting larger, so it’s exciting to see,” said Miatkowski, a Lake Forest College sophomore.

He started the group, Students for the Illinois Marriage Equality Bill, last May after Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, introduced legislation to allow same-sex couples to form civil unions.

At first, his site detailed the bill’s progress for friends, who began inviting hundreds of other friends.

Within weeks, Miatkowski and students from across the state organized online “rallies” to flood legislators with e-mails, faxes and phone calls. Members also have held petition drives at train stations, written editorials and set up campus events.

The group’s efforts made enough of an impression that Illinois lawmakers mentioned it to Harris, sponsor of the civil unions bill. Harris contacted Miatkowski and other student leaders to discuss how to gather more momentum on the bill.

“This is an organic thing. That’s the exciting thing about it,” Harris said. “There’s no way I could talk to 9,000 individuals from every county in this state and get them on board with this. They did this themselves.”

He will need the help.

Harris sponsored a bill to legalize gay marriage last year, but abandoned it when the idea faced too much resistance. He proposed a new plan weeks later and changed its language from “marriage” to “civil unions.” The proposal passed out of committee 5-4.

Harris is confident the bill will get the 60 votes it needs to pass and expects the House to make a decision on it before the end of the year. The bill gives same sex couples the same the rights as married couples to estate benefits, child custody or adoption, property ownership.

Opponents – including a group that unsuccessfully pushed for a constitutional amendment to recognize only heterosexual marriages – say the bill is just a way to legalize same-sex marriage.

Religious groups say the idea is an abomination while others worry allowing civil union legislation will make it easier to change the definition of marriage in the future.

“‘Civil unions’ is just another word for redefining marriage,” said Joetta Deutsch, a board member of Protect Marriage Illinois. “I believe we should preserve marriage and keep it one man and one woman.”

But supporters of civil unions say they’re not giving up, and hope their online campaign helps them reach even more people.

DePaul junior Chris Jessup spent last weekend canvassing suburban Chicago and Wrigley Field to collect signatures for the bill. Jessup, one of the first members of Miatkowski’s group, set up a companion Web site.

“It’s a huge way, an easy way and quick way to get students involved,” he said.

Some lawmakers said it’s hard not to notice the effort.

Urbana Democrat Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, a co-sponsor of the bill, said she had an inch-high stack of faxes on her desk.

Sen. Heather Steans has received more than 50 e-mails from the supporters of the measure. The Chicago Democrat said the online effort is an effective way get people in touch with their own state representatives and senators.

“If you get something like 10 to 20 constituent contacts, you listen,” Steans said.

Miatkowski knows the bill has stalled, but hopes his efforts effort will lead to legislation similar to that in his home state of Massachusetts, which legalized gay marriage in 2004.

He points to a 2005 state law that outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation that took several years before it passed. “So if you put it in perspective, one year isn’t that long,” he said.