New LGBT Bills Moving Forward in Springfield

by: Tony Merevick

Note: This piece was originally published on the Chicago Phoenix and has been reposted with permission. You can read the original here.

As deadlines approach in the state legislature, lawmakers and civil rights groups are pushing for the passage of three bills in the Illinois General Assembly. The three pieces of legislation would provide rights and protections for LGBTs and require public schools to report anti-bullying data to the state.

HB4725, an amendment to the state’s hate crimes law, passed through the Criminal Law Committee by a vote of 5-3 Thursday morning. The legislation would add protections for gender identity, military status and immigration status. Earlier this month, Chicago Phoenix reported the introduction of the bill by Rep. Kelly Cassidy (14th District) and the effect it will have on prosecuting hate crimes against people in the state’s transgender community.

“Twelve states and Washington D.C. have included gender identity in hate crimes laws,” said Anthony Martinez, executive director of The Civil Rights Agenda. “HB4725 does not create a new law, or confer special rights to a certain group of people, but rather, amends the current hate crime law to include people that are victimized at higher rates based on the perpetrator’s bias.”

The bill will move forward to a full General Assembly vote.

“We thank the legislators who voted to move this bill forward today in committee,” said Rick Garcia, veteran LGBT activist. “But first and foremost we thank Rep. Cassidy, who has an incredible background and the experience to get this done. I have worked with Rep. Cassidy for decades in a variety of roles and her leadership in fighting LGBT discrimination is unmatched.”

On Feb. 29, the Civil Law Committee voted 7-4 to approve the Illinois Family Medical Leave Act (HB4724), a bill that mirrors the federal government’s Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 and would ensure that couples in civil unions can take up to a 12-week, unpaid medical leave to care for their spouse, parent or child under the age of 18.

“Basically, it’s word for word from the federal law,” said Martinez. Currently, people in civil unions are not recognized by the federal law and therefore cannot sue their employers if medical leave is not granted.

“The bill would allow couples in civil unions to access medical leave benefits because in Illinois we have defined civil unions to be the same as marriage,” Martinez said.

Initially, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce was concerned that the new legislation would allow couples to sue their employers in both state and federal courts, which would present an addition burden to businesses. However, under the proposed law, straight couples in Illinois would have to choose federal or state court and couples in civil unions would only be able to take their case to state court where their relationships are legally recognized, according to Khadine Bennett of the ACLU.

Following the passage in committee, the bill is set to move to the full General Assembly, where Equality Illinois Director of Public Policy Randy Hannig Jr. thinks it will be an uphill battle to get it passed.

In addition to the two other bills, Cassidy, with the support of the ACLU and the Prevent School Violence Coalition, is pushing forward an amendment to the sate’s School Code that addresses the state’s current bullying and anti-violence measures.

In 2010, the General Assembly passed the School Violence Prevention Act to define bullying and create the Illinois School Bullying Prevention Task Force. The amendment comes as a recommendation from the Task Force and adds a number of modifications to how the state handles and defines bullying.

Changes include adding physical appearance, socioeconomic status, academic status, pregnancy, parenting and homelessness to the categories against whom bullying is prohibited, according to an ACLU factsheet. It also requires schools to develop a template for a model bullying prevention policy, requires the state to develop rules that support schools to collect and report bullying data and encourages schools to respond to violence by using disciplinary interventions such as counseling.

“While the bill does not specifically address LGBT issues, it is important to further our state’s bullying prevention efforts that would make schools safer for all students, including those who identify as LGBT,” said Sarah Schriber, coordinator at Prevent School Violence Illinois.

The legislation was met by some concerns and debate in the Elementary & Secondary Education Committee Wednesday.

Some lawmakers are concerned that it as an unfunded mandate. A 2010 amendment to the School Code provides that schools are not obligated to adhere to legislative mandates unless funds are appropriated for them by the sate.

“It is not an unfunded mandate,” Bennett said. “I thought it was a good committee hearing in that there wasn’t a ‘no.’ People acknowledged how important this bill is. A number of representatives echoed the importance of this legislation.”

In response to questions, Cassidy moved to hold the vote until next week to work with other lawmakers to adjust the bill’s language, clarifying it as a way of helping the state collect data on incidents of bullying, according to Martinez.

“Rep. Cassidy did a good job of addressing a need to tweak the language,” said Bennett.

The advancements of the three bills signals an accelerated movement among legislators for LGBT rights in 2012. Earlier this month, Rep. Greg Harris introduced a marriage equality bill, which has since been assigned to the Human Services Committee that he chairs.

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