The Illinois Senate has passed a civil union bill. The House passed it yesterday, and the governor has said he will sign it, so it's a done deal. When it becomes law the status will be available to both same-sex and different-sex couples.
Only Nevada and the District of Columbia have created a status that is also open to different-sex couples (both jurisdictions called the status "domestic partnership" but because it extends to those who register virtually all of the state-based legal consequences of marriage it is the same as what others states call a "civil union."). The Hawaii civil union bill which was vetoed earlier this year by the state's Republican governor also included different-sex couples.
Colorado allows different-sex couples to register as "designated beneficiaries" (as well as any two unmarried people), and that gives some of the important legal consequences of marriage, like the right to inherit without a will and the right to sue for wrongful death, but it gives nowhere near all the legal consequences of marriage. (I like this status because those who sign up can choose their own legal consequences.)
California and Washington also allow different-sex couples to register, but only if one partner is 62 or older. (This is supposedly to protect benefits that might be lost if a recipient remarried, but the specific age chosen - 62 - does not actually correspond to any legal consequence of remarriage, so go figure...)
If Illinois creates a critical mass and is a precursor of things to come, I say it's about time. We may well have come full circle to the impetus behind the first domestic partner benefits implemented in the 1980's; those benefits were available to gay and straight couples because their purpose was to make marriage unnecessary to protect the well-being of a loved one. When Vermont implemented the first "civil union" status but restricted it to same-sex couples, heterosexual feminists rightly complained that they were being inappropriately forced into marriage.
Yesterday, in writing about the DADT repeal recommendations, I noted that the report opposed creating a "same-sex relationship" status for gay servicemembers, in large part because it would appear unjust and unequal to differentiate between same-sex and different-sex committed couples.
Same-sex only civil unions send two messages: marriage is really special and different-sex couples should be required to marry to get any recognition; and same-sex couples are less worthy and can be cabined in a status developed just for them. I detest both these messages.
After Nevada passed its domestic partnership law, I spoke with some of the key players in that political process. They all said that including different-sex couples was virtually a given, that allowing heterosexuals access to domestic partnership was important to garner more widespread support and represented the value of equality.
To me, it's all about making marriage matter less as a legal status, and that's a good thing.