Illinois House committee approves marriage equality bill; measure advances to final hurdle

Rep. Greg Harris after the victory. Photo: Tony Merevick.

Rep. Greg Harris after the victory. Photo: Tony Merevick.

SPRINGFIELD — Marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples is even closer to becoming the law of the land in Illinois.

The Illinois House Executive Committee voted 6-5 to approve a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage Tuesday, setting the stage for the its final showdown in the full House chamber, the bill’s last hurdle before potentially becoming law.

No Republicans voted for the bill and one Democrat, Rep. Eddie Lee Jackson, Sr. of East St. Louis, voted against it.

“This is a wonderful moment for the State of Illinois,” said Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), the bill’s chief sponsor in the House, moments after the committee victory.

“I look forward to a successful vote in the full House,” he said.

Sen. Heather Steans, who led the bill to victory in the Senate on Valentine’s Day was overjoyed by the committee vote and, like Harris, said she looks forward to victory in the House.

“This is one more step forward,” Steans told Chicago Phoenix. “We are almost there.”

The late night vote came after a 6-hour delay due to intense debate over gun control legislation among members of the House. Committee members quickly filed into the room and began the hearing.

A handful of witnesses gave testimony before the committee, including the notable Rev. Otis Moss III, pastor at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, or the former church of President Barack Obama.

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“We are called to live our faith, not legislate our faith,” Moss said, explaining that there is a difference between religious rites — “R-I-T-E-S” — and civil rights — “R-I-G-H-T-S.”

“Marriage equally enhances our ideals as a state and a nation — that everyone should be treated equally under law,” he said. “Everyone is equal under law.”

Another pastor, Dr. B. Herbert Martin, who was Chicago Mayor Harold Washington’s pastor, also urged the House committee and the House as a whole to approve the bill.

“I call upon you this evening to protect all Illinois residents under the law and support Senate Bill 10, the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act,” Martin said. “After reading the legislation thoroughly, I am satisfied that the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness act does exactly what it intends.”

Martin’s testimony comes as a direct rebuttal to arguments made by some religious leaders such as Chicago Cardinal Francis George of the Roman Catholic Church and conservative Republican state lawmakers who contend that the liberties of religious people and institutions will be violated if the bill becomes law.

“In truth, this is not about theology, but public policy,” he said. “At its core, the legislation confirms that which is right, just and fair.”

Ryan Cannon and Daphne Scott-Henderson of Champaign, who have been together for six years and raise three kids, told the committee that full marriage equality would protect their family from discrimination.

When Cannon gave birth to their 4-year-old son, Sebastian, the hospital initially barred Scott-Henderson from visiting her newborn child because they refused to acknowledge her as a parent.

“It was a very upsetting experience for all of us,” Cannon said. “Daphne and I know that if we could have expressed to the hospital staff that we were a married couple, we wouldn’t have had to experience that. If we were married, there would be no mistake that we are a family.”

But not all of the testimony favored approving marriage equality.

Opponents of the bill continued to contend religious liberty will be infringed because religious institutions will be forced to allow gay and lesbian marriages at their facilities or face legal prosecution — the same argument used by conservative lawmakers in the Senate early this month.

Advocates and lawmakers behind the bill, however, have repeatedly explained that no religious institution or person of faith will have to celebrate of administer a same-sex wedding and no institution will be required to offer up privately controlled spaces for such weddings unless they are considered public accommodations under the Illinois Human Rights Act.

Such designations would be determined by the Illinois Department of Human Rights, not the marriage equality legislation.

Despite assurances from the bill’s sponsors and supporters, Kelly Frederick of Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-gay organization, said the name of the bill is ironic because it does not offer religious freedom.

“Either your violate your conscious or you face prosecution,” Frederick said. “What this bill legislates is discrimination of people of faith.”

Other opponents of the bill, like Dr. Jennifer Roback-Morse of the Coalition to Protect Family and Children and the National Organization for Marriage, brought up issues like raising children in traditional households and said gay and lesbian parents would create “structural injustices to children.”

Roback-Morse also suggested separate rights for gay and lesbian couples — such as civil unions — suffice.

“Treating different things differently is not discrimination,” she said.

Another marriage equality opponent, Linda Jahneke of Rescue Ministries, told the committee that she was once a “homosexual” and that she was “saved by the lord” and converted to a heterosexual 15 years ago.

As a lesbian, Jahneke said she never faced discrimination at hospitals or other situations.

“The argument that homosexuals need laws to protect them is somewhat delusional,” she said. “Marriage is one man and one woman because God is the one who created marriage.”

Following the testimony, the committee thanked people on both sides of the issue for waiting for the committee hearing to begin while they debated amendments to concealed carry legislation, and as the “yes” votes were coming in, one lawmaker took a moment to explain the reasoning behind his vote.

“I don’t think I can vote for this bill because of my religious beliefs,” said Rep. Luis Arroyo, a Chicago Democrat, who added that his district and his constituents also oppose the bill. However, Arroyo said that although he won’t vote for the bill during a full House vote, he didn’t want to get in the way of the bill’s ability to pass through the committee, and voted “yes”.

Upon the passage, many in the room embraced and celebrated, and longtime LGBT rights activist Rick Garcia, who has worked closely to pass the bill, wiped tears from his eyes.

“I am thrilled. This is about winning and we won today,” Garcia said. “We are one step closer to achieving marriage equality in Illinois.”

Illinois would join nine other states that have legalized same-sex marriage – Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Connecticut, Vermont, Washington, New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts — when Gov. Pat Quinn is given the bill to sign into law.

“And then we will a lovely party — a kiki — up in here,” Garcia said.

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