Group boards bus for marriage

By Molly Stephey

C-U at the Altar is more than just a clever play on words. This local gay-rights project is part of a nationwide movement to educate people about the ongoing debate over legal unions between same-sex couples.

“This issue is about love and life and the need for full equality,” said RoiAnn Phillips.

Phillips is a member of Lambda Legal, a national organization that fights to ensure the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals.

Lambda Legal has teamed up with C-U at the Altar to bring Champaign-Urbana residents the nation’s first “Marriage Equality Bus Tour.” The 14-foot van began its tour on Aug. 21 and made a stop on campus to spread its message to University students.

From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., the “Marriage Equality Bus Tour” joined hundreds of clubs and organizations for the University’s annual Quad Day. Stationed at the corner of Wright and John streets, group members such as Sally Mundy dispensed information about their cause, coin purses reading “Make Change” and questions to attract roaming students. These questions ranged from “Have you watched the news on same-sex marriages?” to “Hey, you want a magnet that says ‘Sex’ on it?”

Kimberlie Kranich, Champaign resident and co-founder of C-U at the Altar, said students are an especially important audience to reach.

“Students are activists, are involved, are spreaders of information,” Kranich said. “And students will be future lawmakers, future policymakers, future judges … so they need to be educated on this civil-rights issue.”

The project began under the 85 Percent Coalition, a direct-action group that bases its name on the claim that 85 percent of the population supports marriage licenses granted to all couples, regardless of biological sex.

An incident last spring sparked the idea for C-U at the Altar. On May 17, four same-sex couples were denied marriage licenses at the Champaign County Clerk’s office. That same day, a gay man and a straight woman applied for one. The man, Andy Davis, told his sexuality to Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden, and both admitted they were not in love. But because they were of the opposite sex, they received a license.

Mundy, senior in LAS, said she joined the group because the issue is at a pivotal point in our nation’s history.

This past summer, the U.S. Senate narrowly defeated a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages. It needed just 12 more votes to reach the required minimum of 60. If passed, it would be the only amendment besides Prohibition to restrict – rather than ensure – rights.

President Bush openly supports the proposed amendment while Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry opposes it. Instead, Kerry is calling for civil unions between same-sex couples. But members of the gay community argue that civil unions and legal marriages are inherently unequal because each bestows different benefits.

While marriage licenses are recognized worldwide, civil unions are neither federally protected nor recognized outside of the state that granted the union. With federal income taxes, couples with marriage licenses can file jointly while couples in civil unions must file individually. Immigration benefits are available to married couples but denied to those in civil unions. This last disparity is especially important to Kranich.

Kranich and her partner, who is not originally from the United States, were forced to move so they could find a job that would sponsor a green card. Had they been legally married, Kranich could have sponsored her partner’s green card herself.

Mundy said she can’t understand why there is opposition to same-sex marriages in the first place. But Phillips believes it is a simple matter of misunderstanding.

“I think a lot of the opposition comes from people who don’t know about or understand the gay community,” she said. “This is just a dialogue we have to have in this country.”

Phillips has been working as a gay-rights activist for more than 10 years and said she has seen promising changes in the treatment and rights of gay individuals. Still, members of C-U at the Altar recognize that social change takes time and effort.

“Same-sex couples will eventually be allowed to legally marry, it’s just a matter of when,” Kranich said with conviction. “Our job is to educate the public and to get the word out … if we don’t do that work, then we’re not going to get that legal right.”

She called July’s almost-victory of the proposed amendment to ban same-sex marriages “tremendously scary,” adding, “I am not going to underestimate the power of the radical, religious right.”

The “Marriage Equality Bus Tour” will be at Champaign’s Borders Bookstore, 802 W. Town Center Blvd., on Wednesday from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. for “coffee talks, music and theatre.” A street-theater performance is scheduled for Thursday night from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. in downtown Champaign. On Saturday, the bus tour will make a stop at Urbana’s Sweetcorn Festival in downtown Urbana.