The Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act -- SB1716 -- passed the Senate with a vote of 32-24. It now heads to the desk of Gov. Pat Quinn, who signaled support for the legislation months ago.
"I think this date, this day, will always be remembered as a day that something special happened that made our state better," Quinn said at a press event following the Senate's vote.
Civil unions would give heterosexual and gay couples many of the same rights as marriage -- for instance, the power to make medical decisions for a seriously ill partner. But critics maintain it would amount to same-sex marriage under a different name.
Some senators argued the Legislature shouldn't be discussing civil unions when Illinois faces a massive budget deficit that should get lawmakers' full attention.
"We are the incompetence laughing stock of government mismanagement and misplaced priorities, and our one-party leadership spends our time on homosexual civil unions," said Sen. Chris Lauzen, R-Aurora.
Chicago's mayoral candidates were split on the issue.
Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis and City Clerk Miguel del Valle praised the action by lawmakers.
"I think it's a wonderful day in the state of Illinois," del Valle said after a taking part in a debate at the University of Illinois at Chicago with 10 of the 20 candidates running for mayor.
Emanuel said in a statement that the legislation puts Illinois on the "right side of history." He said it was a matter of
"basic fairness" to promote equality for gay and lesbian Illinois residents.
Another candidate, former Chicago City Colleges Chairman Gery Chico, said Illinois has made history by taking the first step toward providing basic civil rights for all people.
"Extending human rights and responsibilities to committed same-sex couples is not only a matter of justice and human decency, it is good public policy," Chico said in a statement. "However, while tonight is a step in the right direction, our work is not done. We must not rest until Illinois provides full marriage equality to all people."
Only one mayoral hopeful, state Sen. James Meeks, had the chance to vote on the civil unions legislation, and opposed it. Meeks, the pastor of a South Side megachurch, says he believes in the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.
Illinois will become just the sixth state to recongnize civil unions once the legislation is signed. Civil unions will be available beginning July 1, 2011.