Marriage equality coalition leaders: Efforts ramping up, vote on bill as early as Feb. 5

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[L-R] Bernard Cherkasov, Jim Bennett, Ed Yohnka. Photos: Tony Merevick.

As the start of the new legislative session of the Illinois General Assembly draws nearer, a coalition of organizations and advocates are ramping up efforts to push — and pass — a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in the state, making Illinois the 10th in the nation to recognize gay and lesbian unions.

Led by LGBT and civil rights organizations Equality Illinois, Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Illinois, the Illinois Unites for Marriage coalition is calling upon all of its collective resources to help in growing support for the bill among business leaders, clergy members, citizens, and most importantly, state lawmakers, leading up to the first day of session for the State Senate, Feb. 5.

Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, said the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act could come up for consideration before the senators as early as the first day.

After the bill stalled in the lame duck session early this month, the chief sponsors of the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, Sen. Heather Steans and Rep. Greg Harris, reintroduced the legislation shortly after the swearing in of the 98th General Assembly Jan. 8.

The new class of lawmakers comprises super-majorities of Democrats in both the House and the Senate due to gains in the November 2012 general elections. Democrats snapped up five seats in the Senate, totaling 40, and seven seats in the House, totaling 71.

The bill will need at least 30 votes in the Senate and 60 votes in the House before advancing to Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk for signing — something Quinn is confident proponents can achieve in the coming weeks.

Despite the lame duck loss, support and excitement for the bill continues to grow throughout the state, Cherkasov said, during an interview alongside Jim Bennett, Midwest Regional director for Lambda Legal and Ed Yohnka, director of Communications and Public Policy at the ACLU of Illinois with Chicago Phoenix.

“I feel like every week there is literally new momentum or additional momentum that we’ve gained and every week we make more progress,” Cherkasov said. “We keep moving forward.”

The coalition leaders explain in detail how their concerted efforts work, the path of the bill so far, the current status of the bill, and the future of legalizing same-sex marriage in Illinois.

CP: Equality Illinois, Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Illinois are the three founding members of the coalition. What are the distinct functions of each group?

Yohnka: Well, I run everything and Bernard and Jim just say “yes” to whatever I want to do.

[Laughs]

Cherkasov: That’s exactly how it works!

CP: But really.

Cherkasov: The coalition has multiple functions. One of them is the field component and making sure that we are constantly moving this conversation forward by making sure constituents are engaging their lawmakers about the issue — that’s the primary role of the coalition, to bring all of our skills and resources to it.

Yonka: We have expertise and resources and activities that we’ve been doing for a while now. It’s about bringing everyone to the table and asking ‘What have you got?’ and what can we do strategically and what makes the most sense to do now. It’s about sharing that information and sharing those resources, so you know, I have to say it is at the very least an incredibly high functioning coalition compared to most coalitions. I think it’s worked extraordinarily well.

Bennett: As more and more groups step up, it’s important to make sure that we’re able to immediately put them to work and bring in all their resources as well. It’s all been so fast.

CP: What are some things you learned from the lame duck session? Things could have gone better, right? What’s the general lesson from lame duck — I mean, that was the focus of the big push back in December, and then it didn’t happen — what did you take away from that?

Cherkasov: We can pray that nobody’s parent dies, and we can pray that nobody’s child needs emergency surgery and sort of hope for those things, but it’s impossible to anticipate them and you can prepare the best that you can. But some things you just cannot prevent. The lame duck session was great. It was the very first time an Illinois legislative body considered the freedom to marry and it passed by and 8-5 vote. How much stronger of a beginning could we have hoped for? It sent a clear signal to the lawmakers that the next time they consider the issue, the pressure is on them to vote for it and pass it into law. I think it was great. I left the lame duck session very energized and optimistic.

Yohnka: Having been around Springfield for a lot of years now, you know that when you do something in veto, you’re on a very compressed schedule and the process is the process and you need to go through all the steps of the process and therefore, you need everything to go right. It’s all worth it in the end. Every right thing was done, we just couldn’t control some things. And when we come back, come hell or high water, this is going to pass and the governor is going to sign it and people are going to get married in this state dammit and that’s it.

CP: The new session begins Feb. 5 and adjourns May 31 …

Bennett: We want it before May. [Laughs]

CP: The bill as it is now has a 30 day effective date, so potentially we could be celebrating marriage at Pride, right?

Cherkasov: It is a possibility.

Bennett: That would be great. There is nothing out of reach. It feels very close. People have been waiting for too long.

Yohnka: I wouldn’t bet against it.

CP: As we move toward Feb. 5, what’s going to happen? Is it going to be like the lame duck session, where the bill was sort of held on to until the votes were secured — is that what it looks like right now?

Cherkasov: I know we said our main focus is to get constituents to reach out their legislators now and then when they go down to Springfield, we’re still going to be asking them to reach out to their legislators, so instead of doing that in their district it will just happen in Springfield. The focus still remains, but instead of looking at individual districts throughout the state, we’ll be looking at Springfield.

CP: Moving forward, Greg Harris and Heather Steans are the chief sponsors in the House and the Senate and in terms of rallying troops to get this done outside of Springfield, who then are the key players?

[L-R] Cherkasov and Bennett.

[L-R] Cherkasov and Bennett.

Bennett: Well, I would say that Greg Harris and Heather Steans are the key players. I can’t imagine better people to carry our legislation forward because they’re just unstoppable. I feel like they are leading this effort in a way that almost feels unprecedented at least with anything I’ve ever worked on before. I feel like our three groups are key. I think the Chicago Urban League is playing a key role and I … I just don’t even want to limit it. There are so many key players.

Yohnka: I think the couples telling their stories and talking about what’s happening. I think one of the things that’s interesting is what Bernard has put together in terms of the faith list. It’s something that is another thing that I would keep an eye on. And the business leaders list, too. Look at who starts to join that list and some of the comments they have made about how Illinois is at a competitive disadvantage without marriage. These are people who are talking about really fundamental dignity issues.

Cherkasov: How profound is it that three bishops, Lutheran, Methodist and Episcopalian bishops have come out to fight for the freedom to marry? They are bringing the entire gravity of their office to this. It signals that, you know, this is the time.

CP: Do you feel that clergy members and these business leaders are going back to their base with the same intensity as the clergy who oppose same-sex marriage are going back to their bases? Is the same amount of effort coming from the supporting clergy?

Bennett: On faith, I’ll say that the intensity on our side is better. I’d certainly want to be on the side of love and acceptance in a matter of faith as opposed to exclusion and hatred. The hardest part for me beyond the marriage struggle is the way the church is used — or the Bible is used — against LGBT people because all you have to do is go to Broadway Youth Center and see all these kids who the church was their whole families and their whole lives and so to be excluded from that is so harmful. For the church to be doing harm in that way is just unconscionable and so if there is going to be a moral argument about faith, the moral argument should be about inclusion and love.

The most heartening part of this fight has been when the religious argument came up in the fight this time, it came from our side first. It was our side that said — all these ministers who came out and said that marriage was the right thing to do, and so to have that powerful message as the first message and later have the religious opposition have to respond with ‘Oh, no wait, God wants to exclude a few people here and there.’ … That was just ridiculous.

CP: It seems like the language of the bill is what the opposition was hanging on to — we already know that they don’t want gay marriage, but they were able to focus on the language and the exemptions in the law and they hammered that in the Senate Executive Committee hearing. Why were they allowed to focus on that?

Yohnka: Let me answer that question with a question. Do you think there is any language that we could propose that would make them accept the bill? It’s about the underlying bill. Look, religious liberty is fundamentally important and the bill has incredibly important and critical religious protections and the notion that somehow chaining something in the language could somehow bring these people over is … or that that was the nature of their opposition is an absurdity.

CP: Is bipartisan support for the bill in the realm of possibility? Will everyone sit down with Republican leaders and make an amendment to the language?

Cherkasov: Every single measure of LGBT equality legislation in Illinois has passed with bipartisan support. There is growing support among Republicans for the freedom to marry. I do believe that when the bill is called in the General Assembly there will be bipartisan support for it as well. They see the same polling that we do. They see that the younger Republicans who will be the future of their party support the freedom to marry. They don’t want to be on the wrong side of the issue. Like Pat Brady said, they don’t want to be the irrelevant party.

Yohnka: Greg Harris and Heather Steans are two of the most effective legislators in Springfield. They are obviously open to continuing discussions with people and thinking about routes to getting to the largest number number of “yes” votes in both houses. It would amazing if this could be passed with acclamation in both houses.

CP: What are you currently working on in terms of lobbying or rallying forces or putting things in place for the new session — what’s going on right now?

Bennett: The biggest is the in-district visits and trying to get the conversation in — because now they are home.

Cherkasov: There are dozens of new lawmakers. Twenty-four and 11, right? Twenty-four representatives and 11 senators. And even thought they are new, they may have thought about the issue in their campaigns and they may have thought about marriage equality in their previous careers, but now, it’s in the legislature. It’s now before them, so it’s absolutely crucial for them to hear from their constituents.

CP: Jim, you mentioned in-district visits. Are those happening as we speak?

Bennett: They are. The most important thing is that if the visits are done by people who did or did not vote for the them, and so it’s a challenge to find people throughout the state. I mean, it would be great it Lakeview and Andersonville were our targets because we have a lot of people — and those people should write too — but it’s finding those couples and PFLAG parents, clergy, business leaders to go and talk to their legislators.

CP: Is that a challenge?

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Ed Yohnka.

Yohnka: It’s funny. I think those meetings with those people in that context are always the most revelatory and really one of the most interesting sort of things. You often hear on the floor during a debate about a family member or a clergy member … A member will say, “You know, I heard from so-and-so from my district…” And that’s what representatives really want to know so that they can see what will effect the people they represent.

Bennett: I do think that the Illinois General Assembly wants to do this. I feel like as we’ve talked to representatives and senators, they want to find a way to do this and so those visits help them find that support, so that they can say “Look, people are coming to me even in my conservative district and telling me that this is an issue that matters to them and matters to their kids.”They want to be able to look back and say “I moved this state and this nation forward.”

Cherkasov: They want to be able to say that they did the right thing.

Bennett: And so for us, it’s our job to put these pieces of the puzzle in place quickly, so that we can make it happen fast.

Yohnka: I’ve been amazed. When you’re just out talking to people at like a grocery store, or a family event or a dinner party, it’s fascinating that the actual excitement and buzz you get from people about doing something historic and even though we’re not the first state, people still see this as important and historic. That energy translates into those meetings and sessions and it does provide legislators a sense of urgency, that sense of importance and that sense of real purpose.

CP: When we talked about resources shared by the coalition, we’re talking about lists of people, we’re talking about lawyers, we’re talking about lobbyists, we’re talking about phone banks — where is money in all of this? Is that a resource that’s playing a major role in this?

Cherkasov: We grow it on trees.

Bennett: There’s always a need for money. If people want to help, the first thing that they can do is contact their legislator — there’s nothing more important than that. If people want to support our organizations, that’s great too. People in Chicago have always been part of this fight and they’ve been trusting us with their support so that we can be ready to do work like this. Certainly, we all need help.

Yohnka: The money is really about priorities. As a multi-issue organization, the ACLU has thrown a lot of money and resources like staff at this issue. Our lobbyist, Mary Dixon, has worked around the clock since the election on this issue. It’s been about priorities and that’s a resource issue where we’ve decided that this is our highest priority. There’s nothing more fundamental than being able to marry the person you love.

CP: In some of the initial reports about the marriage bill coming up for vote in the lame duck session, there was information about a publicity organization called ASGK. What does ASGK do and how does it fit into the coalition?

Yohnka: They’ve come in and helped us. They have an interest in this issue and they have an interest in seeing that this bill passes and they have come in and helped us in terms of extending and echoing our reach all across the state. When you’re working in a coalition, to have a single entity that can help you organize something like that can be extraordinarily helpful.

Bennett: It’s been interesting. They will come to us and ask us how to talk to people of faith about the issue and we find that with almost every case, we have the resources to do that. Through all of the victories and the losses, the most profound of messages we have is love. It was funny, when we first met Eric Herman of ASGK, and they were going through all the reasons and we were like, “It’s love, it’s love” and took a moment, and then they got it. It’s been great to have those guys along.

CP: So when marriage passes in Illinois, what’s next?

Bennett: Well, I certainly will be planning my wedding. In all seriousness, first, we have to make sure that it’s implemented correctly. When you look at the movement in general, there are still kids coming out and getting bullied. There’s also discrimination — an overwhelming amount of calls to our help desk are about employment discrimination. One of the painful things about our movement is that we have these big victories for thins like marriage, but then we see things like bullying and teen suicides at higher or more visible rates.

CP: There’s still a lot of issues with how the community perceives transgender people and how government perceives transgender people. What about the transgender community?

Bennett: I don’t think we’re choosing to work on marriage over something. I think these fronts are all being worked on. This is the more visible front being worked on with a hopefully clear end in sight in Illinois, but I think for transgender individuals, I think they face a level of discrimination that is greater than anyone in our community.

Cherkasov: Even while marriage is the most visible issue, we actually have been working on making advances at securing equality and treatment for transgender individuals. For the last two years, we’ve been working with larger employers throughout the state to help them adopt transgender discrimination guidelines and help them create more hospitable workplaces. A few weeks ago, we launched a guide for changing gender markers in Illinois and in the coming weeks and months, we’re launching additional transgender programs. So, I think there’s movement already happening — we’ve been doing that work for quite a long time.

With legislation, there’s a hate crimes law that needs to be strengthened with gender identity, there’s a safe schools law that needs to be strengthened as well and there are specific protections in that for transgender students, so there’s a lot more work that needs to be done.

CP: What are we going to see as we get closer to the start of the session?

Cherkasov: You’re going to see continuing calls for people to reach out to their legislators. Get everyone, whatever hat they’re wearing to engage their lawmakers and tell them how urgent marriage equality is. We can’t miss any opportunity to move that conversation forward.

Bennett: It’s about putting a face on the issue and having these conversations. It sounds so simple, but it’s really so hard. It’s always shocking that for the efforts we’ve put into this having a legislator come back and say they only received six calls. So it’s incumbent on all of us and at the end of the day, a face to face is best, a phone call is second best, and a letter is the third best, and an email is fourth best. If you take the time to find a senator’s or representative’s office and you sit down with them, there’s nothing that’s going to have a more profound affect than that.

CP: So really, the coalition is the shepherd of all of this — to get the community to win this for itself?

Bennett: Yes. And beyond the community is we need those strengths to come out. That’s what needs to happen.

Stay tuned to Chicago Phoenix for continued coverage of the battle for marriage equality in Illinois.