Illinois Senate committee approves marriage equality bill

steans committee victorySPRINGFIELD — Legal same-sex marriages are another historic step closer to becoming law in Illinois.

The state’s Senate Executive Committee voted on party lines Tuesday to approve the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act after nearly two hours of witness testimony and intense questioning from Republican senators.

The victory signifies the first successful step in a plan to swiftly pass the bill in the new session of the General Assembly, something the sponsoring lawmakers Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) and Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago) pledged to achieve since last month.

“I applaud my colleagues for their vote today,” said Steans. “All eyes are on Illinois as the next state expected to include gay and lesbian in the freedom to marry.”

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The bill can now move to the full Senate floor, which Senate President John Cullerton plans to do on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, if he and other same-sex marriage proponents can account for the 30 “yes” votes necessary to achieve passage.

“Im hoping [for a full Senate vote] next week,” Steans said shortly after the committee hearing. “Senate President Cullerton said maybe on Valentine’s Day. I certainly hope so.”

Nine Democrats voted for the bill and five Republicans voted against it, suggesting little change in Republican support for the measure since the early January lame duck session, when the bill was passed in a similar fashion and ultimately stalled by the compressed schedule.

Republican lawmakers and religious leaders, in addition to opposing the recognition of gay and lesbian nuptials, said they are dissatisfied with language in the bill that they allege will force some religious institutions to host same-sex weddings, which would go against their deeply held beliefs.

As it currently stands, only facilities that are found to be public accommodations under the Illinois Human Rights Act would not make that exemption. For example, a public accommodation would be a ball room that is offered to public for a fee in order to make a profit. Chapels and other spaces used for worship would not be classified as public accommodations.

Sen. Dale Righter (R-Mattoon) aggressively questioned the protections and exemptions offered to religious institutions during testimony by proponent witnesses, specifically on matters of what types of facilities constitute as public accommodations. Righter and Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine) argued that passing the marriage equality legislation would have churches “dragged into court” to determine what is a public accommodation and what is not under state law.

Christopher Clark, Senior Staff Attorney in the Midwest Regional Office of Lambda Legal, who testified on behalf of the bill said the legislation has nothing to do with deciding what facilities are exempt from hosting gay and lesbian weddings.

“Questions on whether or not something is a public accommodation is not relevant to this law,” Clark told Chicago Phoenix. “That will be done through the Illinois Human Rights Act.”

During his testimony, Clark explained there is a difference between forcing religious institutions to perform same-sex weddings and allowing their facilities to be exempted under state law.

“Nothing in this act forces a church to perform a same-sex marriage,” he said for emphasis during the testimony. “No minister, no church has to perform a same-sex marriage.”

However, if there is a question as to whether or not a church facility is a public accommodation, the marriage equality bill provides that such claims will be addressed and ruled on by the Illinois Department of Human Rights based on the state’s Human Rights Act.

“The ability for churches to be determined to be a public accommodation — that existed before this bill and even before the civil unions bill,” Clark said. “All of that is determined by the state’s pre-existing human rights laws.”

Basically, the same-sex marriage legislation would not change any existing human rights laws — it simply defers to them, Clark said.

In addition to concerns from Republican lawmakers, two witnesses — Joseph La Rue of the Alliance Defending Freedom and Pastor Keith Williams of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship Church in Country Club Hills — testified against the bill, saying they are concerned that the bill does not do enough to protect religious freedom.

“We believe this bill will hurt the church’s ability to pursue its rights,” Williams said. “This is in vehement opposition to [the Bible].”

But not all of the testimony before the committee was against the bill.

Proponents called on Danielle Cook and Suzanna Hutton, who are plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, to explain how marriage equality will affect their family.

“Marriage is the standard in our society,” Cook said, and added that being denied the right to marry hurts. “It hurts because our relationship is recognized differently. I feel like I am married to Suzie. I want to be married to Suzie.”

Advocates in the room were excited by the victory and look forward to the bill’s next hurdle on the full Senate floor. They also criticized their oppositions’ arguments.

“I’m so thrilled with the vote,” said Rick Garcia, a longtime LGBT rights activist and director of the Equal Marriage Illinois Project at The Civil Rights Agenda. “Christopher Clark did an excellent job responding to the questions because all they wanted to do was talk about the Human Rights Act.”

Garcia wasn’t the only one who saw through the claims.

“You can see by the arguments used by the opposition that they know marriage equality is going to happen,” said Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois. “They got lost and confused in their own arguments.”

Garcia and other advocates said that efforts will continue in full force ahead of the full Senate vote, including meeting with Republican members of the Senate and the House.

“We have a lot of senators we are targeting. We are meeting with and talking to all of the senators to shore up our ‘yes’ votes,” Garcia said. “We have to make sure we have the votes there when it hits the floor.”

If passed in the Senate, the bill would then need to pass through both a House committee and then a full House vote before it could land on the desk of Governor Pat Quinn, who said he will quickly sign the legislation into law.

Quinn also applauded the Senate victory and said marriage equality is a matter of fairness and equal rights under the law.

“I thank the members of the Senate Executive Committee for advancing this measure today, and look forward to working to pass this bill through both houses in the days to come,” said Quinn. “Now is the time for the next step in providing equal rights to all people in Illinois.”