Vote on Illinois marriage equality bill coming in January: sponsors

Photo: Deepak

Photo: Deepak

The legalization of same-sex marriage in Illinois could be just around the corner.

The chief sponsors of a bill in the state’s General Assembly that would legalize same-sex marriage said Thursday they’d bring the legislation up for vote during the lame duck session beginning Jan. 2, or early next month.

Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago), the bill’s chief sponsor in the Illinois Senate and Greg Harris (D-Chicago), the chief sponsor in the House, said they are close to securing enough support among their colleagues to potentially pass the bill, apparently riding the wave of increasing support for same-sex marriage throughout the country.

“I really think that there’s a national sea change that’s happening on this and I think it’s helped [other legislators] evolve on this issue,” Steans told Chicago Phoenix. “We have a governor now, who two years ago was running on a platform of civil unions, and now he supports it. It’s just been a real sea change here.”

Several high-ranking state officials have also called for same-sex marriage. On Monday, Gov. Pat Quinn told reporters he’d like to see the bill reach his desk in early January, lining up with the legislators’ new timeline.

Steans and Harris must have at least 60 House votes and 30 Senate votes to get the bill to Quinn’s desk. The bill won’t go up on the board in the General Assembly until they have those votes secured, Steans said, and added that they’ll likely start with a vote in the Senate and then bring it to the House.

Recent statements by local LGBT rights activists suggested the bill would come up for vote early next year. Until now, sponsors in the legislature have been quiet about the timeframe for the bill, which was introduced early this year and has been held up in a Rules Committee.

“We’re working to have a vote as soon as we can,” said Rick Garcia, a longtime LGBT rights activist in Illinois and policy advisor at The Civil Rights Agenda. “We will call it if the votes are there. We are activating all of our folks throughout the state to contact their legislators.”

Garcia cautiously looks forward to January, emphasizing: “We will call the bill when the votes are there.”

If passed in January, House Bill 5170, or “The Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act,” would make Illinois the tenth state to legalize same sex-marriage. Three states — Washington, Maine and Maryland — approved marriage equality via popular vote in the Nov. 6 general election, joining Iowa, Massachusetts, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut.

As for becoming No. 10, Steans said she wouldn’t want to it to be any later than that. “It’s a nice, round number,” she said.

Currently, the state allows same-sex couples to join in civil unions, which Harris pushed through the legislature two years ago. One challenge the sponsors face when asking their colleagues for support is explaining the difference between a civil union and a marriage.

“Some will say civil unions are fine. But they’re not,” Steans said. “Why isn’t that fine? It’s really a second class status. There’s a number factors, one is the Supreme Court taking up a DOMA case, so there would be all those couples in civil unions who wouldn’t have access to all of those federal benefits without marriage if they strike it down.”

So far, no changes to the language of the bill have been made. The last public version included a mechanism for couples to voluntarily convert their civil union to a marriage. It would also recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

In addition, it would allow religious institutions to opt out of recognizing the marriages of same-sex couples in places of worship. Steans believes this is key to the bill’s success.

“We want to give all citizens equal access,” she said. “We also want to protect religious institutions. No religious institutions will have to recognize them, but I think there will be a lot of them that do. Of course, there will be some that don’t.”

Leading up to January, the sponsors and several LGBT rights advocates urge citizens to call their representatives and ask for their support.

“Have your friends and family call throughout the state — it’s needed,” Steans said. “Especially outside the city limits. Now is the time.”