Leave State to Avoid Required Step for Marriage License : Illinois Couples Shun AIDS Tests

Times Staff Writer

They tossed rice before the first pitch at a Kenosha Twins baseball game last May when the Wisconsin minor league team threw a mass wedding promotion with the theme, “you supply the bride and we supply the diamond.”

But of 13 couples on the infield that day, only two were local residents and the rest came from Illinois. Such a result was entirely expected, since record numbers of Illinois lovers have been tying the knot in Kenosha and other towns across the state line this year.

The boom in cross-border nuptials is the result of a controversial new state law, the only one of its kind in the nation, that requires applicants for an Illinois marriage license to take an AIDS test.

Defended as Protection for Newlyweds


Backers of the measure claimed during debate in the state Legislature that it would help protect newlyweds from catching AIDS, which is usually transmitted sexually, while reducing the numbers of babies born with the deadly disease.

But state health officials now say that the program, while leading to a 25% drop in Illinois weddings, has uncovered only 15 AIDS victims among the 125,000 people who have undergone the mandatory premarital tests since the law went into effect on Jan. 1.

At the same time, the Illinois Department of Public Health estimated that the tests could cost brides and grooms as much as $10 million in lab and physician charges this year--an amount nearly triple the entire $3.5-million state budget for AIDS education and prevention programs.

“It’s frustrating to see all that money spent and to be left with the question, ‘who’s benefiting from this?’ ” said Linda Haase, a department spokeswoman.


The growing AIDS crisis has prompted a flurry of legislative activity in many states, but no law has created as big an uproar as the Illinois test statute.

Tests Cost From $10 to $150

Under the measure, county clerks are forbidden from issuing marriage permits unless applicants provide certificates to prove that they have taken the tests, which can cost anywhere from $10 to $150 or more depending on the laboratory used and the need for follow-up tests to confirm results. However, applicants are not required to reveal test results nor are they barred from getting married if they have AIDS.

Pushed largely by fundamentalist religious groups and conservatives, the measure was signed by Republican Gov. James R. Thompson over the objections of his own state health director, professional medical groups and AIDS activists. Thompson resisted a push to repeal the law when the Legislature reconvened last spring, but aides say that he may now be willing to reconsider that position when lawmakers return next year.

“At the time he felt that we had something of an obligation to the kids who might be products of marriages to put this law into effect,” said David Fields, Thompson’s spokesman. “Now the numbers would seem to indicate that . . . might not be a problem.”

A similar statute went into effect in Louisiana this year, but lawmakers quickly voted to repeal it in the face of an Illinois-style stampede of sweethearts across the state’s borders.

“It wasn’t working very well,” acknowledged state Rep. Wilford Carter, who sponsored the Louisiana law and who also backed its repeal. “It was better to do away with it than try to fix all the bugs.”

In Illinois, however, advocates of mandatory testing have vowed to fight any move to rescind the law.


“We’re not going to roll over and play dead,” said a spokesman for Rep. Penny Pullen, a Republican state legislator who also served on a White House AIDS panel. “Our medical experts are absolutely certain that this is going to be one of the primary ways of preventing the spread (of AIDS). . . . If the governor’s going to change his mind, he’s going to have to explain why he’s changed his mind about wanting babies to die.”

The spokesman, Cal Skinner, rejected claims that high test costs are to blame for the exodus of engaged couples. Those going to Wisconsin, he noted, must pay substantially higher fees for marriage licenses than in Illinois, as well as make two trips across the border--one to get the license and one to get married after a mandatory five-day waiting period.

Rather, he suggested, many couples flee the state to get married because one or both members knows they have a higher-than-average chance of having the disease and fear telling that to their mate. The higher-risk categories include homosexuals, bisexuals, sexually active heterosexuals and intravenous drug users.

Critics of the law say that it focuses on those least likely to contract AIDS--monogamous heterosexuals--while diverting attention and resources away from gays and others in more danger.

‘False Sense of Security’

“It gives the general public the impression that something significant is being done in the prevention category when, in truth, nothing’s being done,” said Tim Drake, the chief lobbyist for the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “It gives people a false sense of security.”

Perhaps no one has heard more grumbling about the law from Illinois couples than Nancy Principe, the county clerk in Wisconsin’s Kenosha County, just north of the Illinois border.

“They’re very angry with the Illinois government for passing this bill,” Principe said. “They don’t think its any of the state’s business whether they have AIDS or not.”


Though she sympathizes with those complaints, Principe has also parlayed the law into a mini-matrimony boom for her office. In the first seven months of 1987, the Kenosha clerk issued all of 41 marriage licenses to Illinois couples. In the comparable period this year, she issued 888.

Principe said she has had as many as 28 Illinois couples apply for a license in a single day. Furthermore, she estimated, revenue for her county from wedding licenses should hit $100,000 in 1988, up from $30,000 a year ago.

Principe bought a Polaroid to take snapshots for couples who forget to bring their own cameras and has stood up at dozens of civil weddings for couples who forget to bring their own witnesses. She has also been interviewed by several television networks, newspapers and wire services.

“It’s going to be dull around here,” she said of the prospect of the law’s being repealed. “We’ll have to find something else to do.”