SPRINGFIELD — Legal same-sex marriage is another historic step closer to becoming a reality in Illinois.
The Illinois Senate voted 34-21 to approve a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage Thursday, an action deliberately planned to fall on Valentine’s Day, clearing the way for the bill to move to the Illinois House.
Thirty-three Democrats voted in favor of the bill, and a single Republican — Sen. Jason Barickman of Bloomington — changed his mind on the issue and voted “yes” for the bill. Two members voted “present.”
“This is a huge step forward for Illinois,” said said Sen. Heather Steans, the bill’s chief sponsor of the bill in the Senate, following the victory. “I am so excited that we did this. I look forward to getting it through the House.”
The bill, or the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, would offer equal marriage rights and benefits under the law for gay and lesbian couples while offering protections to religious institutions that oppose such unions.
Steans and the chief sponsor of the bill in the House, Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), expect the bill to come up for consideration in the other chamber in the coming weeks, but would not speculate on a date. Instead, both Steans and Harris contend the bill has a “very good” chance in the House following the Senate passage.
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Harris, who watched the Senate vote feet away from Steans, was overcome by emotion as the “yes” votes added up on the board.
“When I saw [the votes] come up, I could only think about the thousands of families who may final be able to feel full and equal,” he told Chicago Phoenix, visibly moved to tears.
The climactic vote came after over an hour of debate among members of the Senate, with a number of Republican Senators criticizing the bill for not having clear enough exemptions for religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage and challenging the religious definition of the word marriage.
Directly before the vote, the Senate approved a motion to amend the language of the legislation, adding a provision that would allow the exemption of non-adjacent parish halls of church’s that deny to celebrate gay and lesbian unions.
However, in line with his past criticism of the bill, Sen. Dale Righter (R-Mattoon), unleashed a barrage of pointed concerns at Steans during the debate, questioning again what qualifies as a private establishment or exempted religious institution as opposed to a public accommodation under the law.
At one point, Righter asked how much religious activity within a space would qualify it to be considered as a religious institution and ultimately exempt it from having to offer the space to gay and lesbian couples.
Steans iterated and reiterated throughout the questioning that no religious institution or private establishment — club, hall or school — would be forced to host such unions if they wish to deny them. She also reminded Righter — as she did last week when the bill was heard in committee — that questions of what is considered as a public accommodation, or what is not exempted, will be determined by existing laws, the Illinois Human Rights Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Such claims would ultimately be handled by the Illinois Department of Human Rights and would be influenced by language in the marriage bill.
“This is a red herring,” Steans said after repeated questions from Righter. “Private schools and private clubs are totally in control of their own property and do not run the risk of having to provide these ceremonies.”
Additional Republicans railed against the bill, such as Sen. Kyle McCarter of Vandalia, who alleged that legalizing same-sex marriage would eventually change what children learn in schools and that children may become confused if marriage is redefined.
Steans responded to McCarter’s claims by saying that no provisions in the bill affect curriculum in schools, but McCarter did not accept her answer.
“Actually, it will change what children are taught,” he said. “It will change the curriculum. Some will feel obligated and even mandated that we make sure to redefine the definition of marriage in our schools.”
The gallery erupted in laughter when McCarter went as far as to speculate that small businesses involved in weddings such as florists and bed and breakfast resorts will choose to “dissolve” their businesses instead of catering to gay and lesbian couples.
“Whatever is said on this floor means nothing to me,” he said.
But not all of the Senate’s 19 Republicans spoke against or voted against the bill.
Citing improvements made to the bill that would clarify religious exemptions, Sen. Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington), said he has changed his mind on the issue and that he appreciates Stean’s willingness to address concerns his party had with the language.
“Because of the amendment added to this bill, this bill now protects the religious liberty of all people all over the state,” Barickman said. “For me, this is simply the right thing to do.”
Several Senate Democrats praised the bill and Stean’s leadership in guiding it to passage.
“Today, we have the opportunity to change the lives of so many people,” said Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-Cicero). “This is a bill that is a defining moment here in the state and a defining moment back home under our roofs.”
Sen. William Delgado (D-Chicago), a chief sponsor of the bill in the Senate, praised the bill, saying, “this is the time, this is the place, this is the moment,” to move it forward. He also jabbed at his Republican peers who spoke agains the legislation.
“I don’t get out to the movies very often, but i just saw Lincoln and i feel like I’m sitting in 1865 when similar debates were happening over slavery,” he said.
Several other proponent lawmakers spoke on behalf of the bill, including Sen. David Koehler (D-Peoria), Sen. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago), Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D-Chicago Heights), Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicaogo) and others.
Raoul, before arguing on behalf of the bill, assured his peers that approving same-sex marriage would not be the end of the world.
“The sky is not falling,” he said. “The sky is not going to fall.”
Indeed, the sky did not fall when the measure passed. People in the gallery stood up in applause and embraced others, and several wiped tears from their eyes.
Rick Garcia, who has been working on LGBT rights legislation in Illinois for decades and who is now the director of the Equal Marriage Illinois Project at The Civil Rights Agenda, said he was overwhelmed by the victory.
“This is a wonderful, wonderful success,” Garcia said. “That is due to the great leadership of the Senate President, Sen. Steans and the advocates working on the bill.”
Another advocate, Camilla Taylor, the Marriage Project Director at the Midwest Regional Office of Lambda Legal, said she is “elated” by the successful vote. Taylor and other attorneys at Lambda wrote and rewrote much of the bill and have an intimately deep understanding of it line by line.
“We are very excited for it to move to the next step,” Taylor said. “Today is a fantastic day for Illinois, same-sex couples and all families.”
As for the strength of the language in the bill and the religious protections it provides, Taylor said she is proud of all of the work that went into making it happen.
“The protections are so vital to protection from discrimination,” she said. “We have a long tradition of protection religious freedoms in this state and this bill continues that tradition.”
Now that the Senate has approved the bill, the advocates are gearing up for a similarly divided battle in the House.
Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, said two major takeaways from the Valentine’s Day vote are the fact that the marriage bill received more votes than the civil union bill two years ago and the chance for bipartisan support, giving the lone Republican “yes” vote.
“We are going into the House with stronger momentum than ever,” Cherkasov said.
Once the bill clears the House, it will land on the desk of Gov. Pat Quinn, who plans to quickly sign it into law.
Quinn issued a statement commending the Senate for pass the bill, “we are one step closer to marriage equality in Illinois.”
“Couples across Illinois have even more reason today to celebrate their love for each other, thanks to the hard work of committed advocates and lawmakers. This historic legislation will strengthen our state by allowing all committed couples to enjoy the same legal protections and benefits of marriage,” Quinn said. “The Senate took a stand for equal rights for all people. I urge the House of Representatives to pass this legislation so that we can ensure Illinois is a welcoming place for everyone.”
“Full equality for all people is right for Illinois,” he said.
Illinois would become the tenth state to legalize same-sex marriage, joining Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Connecticut, Vermont, Washington, New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts.