Gay marriage remains a tough sell in Illinois

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— The stalling of Illinois’ gay-marriage push — at least for now — shows the difficulty of approving legislation to legalize it, even with a nudge from the home-state president, steadily rising support in the polls and national momentum from the November elections.

Democrats control both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor’s office in the solidly blue state. Yet the margin of support Senate Democrats were able to pull together for a bill last week was so thin that a death in one lawmaker’s family and another senator’s extended trip to Israel were enough to push the issue into the next legislative session.

Supporters downplayed the delay, saying a Senate committee’s vote to advance the measure was history itself and insisting same-sex marriage here is inevitable. But there’s no denying that even as the nation’s feelings about the issue appear to be shifting, lawmakers have been more reluctant to do so — particularly in the nation’s heartland.

No legislature in the middle of the country has approved gay marriage. Of the nine states that allow it, Iowa is the only one not located on the nation’s coasts, and it adopted same-sex unions through the courts, not the Legislature.

As it became clear last week that Illinois didn’t have a deal and would have to push back a vote until possibly February, Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, mentioned same-sex marriage along with gun control as measures that are “always going to be very, very tough” to pass.

That makes a potential victory in Illinois even sweeter, advocates say. The Iowa Supreme Court’s decision to void the state’s gay marriage ban in 2009 shocked people on both coasts and sent ripples across the nation, said Jim Bennett, director of the Midwest office of Lambda Legal.

“I think Illinois is the same way,” Bennett said. “There’s a sense that if it happens in the middle of the country, it’s not a trend. It’s a new understanding of the gay community and where we are.”

While President Barack Obama‘s home state is known for its liberal policies, its Democratic leadership hails mostly from Chicago while the rest of the state — including fellow Democrats — are far more conservative. One Republican from downstate Illinois said what happened last week was a reflection of that.

“I think the Legislature is a microcosm of the state’s society, and it proves once again that the state of Illinois is not ready for gay marriage,” Sen. Sam McCann said.

But Edwin Yohnka, director of public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which is part of a coalition pushing the bill, characterized the committee vote as “a great accomplishment.”

“That was something a year ago or two years ago people would not have conceived,” Yohnka said. “We are a day closer today to having the freedom to marry for all couples in Illinois than we were yesterday, and we will be a day closer tomorrow. Marriage is coming to Illinois.”

Supporters have a parallel effort underway in the Illinois courts, where 25 gay and lesbian couples are challenging the state law that prohibits marriage between people of the same sex, but the legal process could take years. And unlike some other states, Illinois doesn’t have a process for citizens to change state statutes at the ballot box. So the Legislature is seen as the quickest, less expensive route for marriage-equality advocates.

A gay marriage bill was introduced in the Legislature early last year but was going nowhere until last fall. In November, voters in four states either approved gay marriage or voted down bans on it. Wisconsin elected an openly gay U.S. senator, and an Iowa Supreme Court justice who participated in the court’s unanimous ruling in favor of gay marriage kept his seat. Two years earlier, voters ousted three of his colleagues.

Coming just months after Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, Illinois advocates decided to grab the momentum and press the issue before the Legislature as soon as they believed they could get it through. That meant the January lame-duck session, which had the added benefit of letting dozens of lawmakers who wouldn’t have to stand for re-election vote their conscience.

“You really had a sense that it’s our time.” Bennett said. “We moved when the iron was hot.”

Some observers questioned whether advocates rushed too much, not taking time to iron out details that might have helped pick up some votes. But the bill’s sponsor and other supporters said they had done their due diligence and the only glitch was the absence of three lawmakers whose backing was critical.

One suburban Chicago Republican, Sen. Suzi Schmidt, was absent because her mother died, while Democratic Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg was overseas for his daughter’s bat mitzvah and Democratic Sen. James Clayborne had a family emergency.

Lawmakers note it’s not unusual for an issue — especially one as controversial as same-sex marriage — to take several hearings before getting a floor vote. Cullerton and the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Heather Steans, said they will spend the next few weeks of the new session, which begins Wednesday, trying to tweak the bill to allay Republican concerns about violations of religious freedom.

One supporter said votes could occur as early as February. Until then, they will continue to meet with legislators and tell their stories — an approach that has seemed to work well so far. And they say this week’s events ignited their coalition in a way they haven’t seen in nearly a decade.

“At the end of the day, I feel momentum is still behind us, and it’s strong,” Bennett said.


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