UPDATED 12/01/10 12:59 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) – The Illinois Senate has begun debating a proposal to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples in Illinois.

The sponsor, State Sen. David Koehler (D-Peoria) said allowing same-sex couples to join in civil unions is a matter of fairness.

“They deserve the same rights and protections that we grant the citizens in the state of Illinois,” Koehler said. “This is a secular way of legally providing protections and benefits across the board to all of our citizens.”

State Sen. Dan Rutherford (R-Chenoa), who won the November election for Illinois State Treasurer, said he traveled all across the state during his campaign and he believes most Illinois residents support civil unions for same-sex couples.

Supporters say civil unions would grant gay couples some of the same legal rights that come with marriage. Among those are the right to visit a sick partner in the hospital, make decisions about their medical care, and inherit property when a partner dies.

“The one thing that I do know about the people of Illinois is that they want fairness. The people of Illinois, they don’t want discrimination,” Rutherford said. “One thing that I do know, it’s the right thing to do.”

But opponents in the Senate said same-sex civil unions would be a threat to traditional marriage.

“The reason marriage exists is that sexual intercourse between men and women regularly produces children,” State Sen. Chris Lauzen (R-Aurora) said. “I believe that we need to stop experimenting with traditional marriage.”

Lauzen also accused supporters of the civil union proposal of having “grossly misplaced priorities” by calling the measure for a debate when the state is facing a $13 billion deficit, high unemployment rates and mounting public pension debts.

Opponents questioned what impact that legalizing civil unions would have on the costs of providing pensions for public employees.

“We cannot take one more drop of financial strain,” State Sen. Dan Duffy (R-Lake Barrington) said. “How can I support it if we do not know how much money it will cost Illinois taxpayers or how we will pay for it?”

The bill for civil unions passed with a 61-52 vote in the state House Tuesday. The bill squeezed through the House just one vote ahead of the minimum for passage.

As CBS 2’s Kristyn Hartman reports, the House debate over the proposal was spirited, to say the least.

Under the law, Illinois law would continue to reserve the word “marriage” for unions between a man and woman. And federal law wouldn’t recognize the civil unions, meaning gay Illinois couples couldn’t file joint tax returns.

Backers consider it a matter of fundamental fairness.

LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Melissa Hahn Reports

Ira Dym and Ryan Endress have been together for six years, and have a commitment rings to show for it. When asked if civil unions are the same as marriage, Dym essentially said yes – from a legal standpoint.

“Everyone should have civil unions, and that’s pretty much what it is from the perspective of the legal rights that two people who are in love and are committed to each other have from the state,” Dym said. “Marriage becomes a religious; it is really a religious piece.”

Dym and Endress said they could move to state that allows civil unions or marriage, but this is home, and where their families are.

So they closely followed the vote in the state House Tuesday.

Dym and Endress talked about some of the rights that married couples take for granted, which they do not have right now.

“I have to worry that if I get ill and I need to go the hospital, that Ryan doesn’t have, necessarily, even access to me,” Dym said. “That’s a concern of mine.”

In debating the bill Tuesday, openly gay state Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), the sponsor of the bill, said a late member of the chamber ran into that very roadblock.

State Rep. Larry McKeon (D-Chicago), who was the House’s first openly gay member, was not allowed to be at the bedside of his dying partner in a hospital because he had no legalized documentation of their relationship.

“The hospital turned Larry away,” Harris said, quoted in published reports.

Quoted by Gay Chicago Magazine, Harris called the civil unions bill an opportunity to “correct injustice and move us down the path to liberty.” He compared it to the battles to give women the right to vote and eliminate laws that banned interracial marriage, the magazine reported.

Upon passage, mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel issued a statement of support.

“This evening Illinois took a step forward on the path to equal rights for our LGBT neighbors,” Emanuel said in the statement Tuesday. “Promoting equality for gay and lesbian Illinoisans is nothing more than a question of basic fairness – history will leave no shred of doubt that this is the right thing to do. The Senate should now act quickly to advance this legislation in order to get it to the Governor’s desk without delay. I will continue to contact legislators and push for swift passage of the bill.”

Mayoral candidate Carol Moseley Braun has also come out in support of the bill, and candidate Gery Chico helped contact legislators over the weekend for their support.

But opponents say civil unions are a threat to traditional marriage.

“Our intention is to contact members of the Senate and express our opposition to this bill,” said Bob Gilligan of the Catholic Conference of Illinois. “We think this equates civil unions with traditional marriage.”

The state Senate must vote on the bill. Earlier Tuesday, a separate bill for civil unions passed out of a Senate committee 6-2 after being tacked onto an unrelated bill, Gay Chicago Magazine reported.

Gov. Pat Quinn has come out in support of civil unions.

CBS 2’s Kristyn Hartman contributed to this report.

(TM and © Copyright 2010 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS Radio and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

Watch & Listen LIVE