SPRINGFIELD – The showdown in Illinois over same-sex marriage is largely symbolic. Most of the rights afforded to gay couples by legislation pending in Springfield already are guaranteed under the state’s “civil unions” law.
But if the General Assembly approves the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act next week – as now seems likely, after a committee victory Thursday – such unions will be called marriages.
Some opposing religious leaders warn of a violation of “natural order.” Some supportive African-American leaders see in the issue an echo of old debates over interracial marriage.
It’s even drawn in the nation’s most prominent convert on the gay-marriage issue, President Barack Obama, who took the extraordinary step of publicly encouraging his former colleagues in the Illinois legislature to pass a specific bill.
Proponents appear ready to heed that advice next week, after pushing the bill through the Senate Executive Committee on Thursday. It would make Illinois the 10th state to fully recognize same-sex marriage.
“One woman said to me ... when the marriage (bill) passes, she and her family and her kids will for the first time be able to say they’re full members of their community,” said state Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat, co-sponsor of the House bill and one of a few openly gay Illinois lawmakers. “That’s what this is about, building community in our state.”
Harris said he and other sponsors believe they have the votes to pass the bill to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who supports it.
Backers of the measure have been buoyed by recent electoral victories in other states, and by indications that public opinion has shifted in their direction.
The Senate Executive Committee passed the measure Thursday on a partisan 8-5 vote, after almost 2 hours of sometimes emotional testimony from both sides. It now moves to the full Senate.
Both the Senate and House are under Democratic control, and most in the party support the measure. There are some downstate and St. Louis-area Democrats opposed, but some suburban Chicago Republicans are expected to support it.
Even state Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno acknowledged before the vote that “opinion in this area is evolving very, very rapidly.” She voted against it, however, citing “legitimate concerns” about whether it would coerce religious organizations based on their beliefs.
The measure states: “All laws of the State of Illinois . . . applicable to marriage shall apply equally to marriages of same-sex and different-sex couples and their children.”
The bill specifies that religious organizations don’t have to sanctify or validate same-sex marriages.
Opponents say the measure would nonetheless tread on the freedoms of organized religions that oppose gay marriage by changing the definition of an institution rooted strongly in formal religions.
“Marriage is the lifelong, faithful union of one man and one woman, and the natural basis of the family,” states an open letter to legislators signed by religious leaders of several faiths. “This is the natural order embracing the complementary physical, emotional and spiritual design of men and women.”
Among defenders of the bill are a group of leaders in Illinois’ African-American community, which has been at odds with the gay rights movement based on religious and cultural factors.
In an open letter, black leaders, including the head of the Chicago Urban League, told legislators that those factors shouldn’t limit the right to same-sex marriage today.
“We remember that not long ago, some states defined marriage as limited to people of the same race. We were told marriage between people of different races was ‘unnatural’ and that society would be eroded if marriage changed,” the letter says. “The truth is, marriage has evolved throughout history to reflect the needs and progress of society.”
There could be some potential advantages to a formal designation of marriage. If the federal Defense of Marriage Act is overturned, same-sex married couples could seek the same rights as traditional couples in areas such as Social Security benefits, joint filing of federal taxes, estate taxes and immigration issues.
But proponents in Thursday’s committee hearing stressed intangibles of the issue, particularly the notion that the word “married” carries a social legitimacy that no other term has.
Committee witnesses included Chicago-area resident Theresa Volpe. She and her civil-union partner, Mercedes Santos, appeared before the committee with their young daughter and son.
Volpe told of how they once asked their local county clerk for a marriage license. When the clerk suggested that what they wanted was a civil union, they insisted they wanted a marriage license. The clerk, she said, joked that they were looking for “the upgrade” – a description Volpe said is accurate.
Volpe also told of how her son was once hospitalized, and hospital officials barred her from the room because only parents were allowed, and Santos was already there. They wouldn’t accept Volpe’s explanation that they were both the child’s mother.
Had she been able to say they were married, she said, she believes such episodes would be easier to navigate.
“Civil unions are not enough,” said Volpe.
Opponents who testified against the bill Thursday focused on what they said would be the damaging effects to the concept of marriage. Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of the Catholic Diocese of Springfield warned that the measure promotes the idea that “the main purpose of marriage is adult satisfaction, unrelated to the pro-creation of children.”
“We do not believe that marriage should be redefined in this way,” said Paprocki.
The General Assembly is in lame-duck session, meaning some members will leave office when the new legislature is seated on Wednesday. Proponents are trying to get the act passed before the current session expires, with support of some lawmakers whose careers are almost over.
Opponents have been highly critical of the decision to push the bill during the lame-duck session, which is how the state’s civil-union bill was passed in 2010.
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