Time running out for Illinois marriage equality push

The Illinois Captiol Building. Photo: Tony Merevick.

The Illinois Captiol Building. Photo: Tony Merevick.

While LGBT rights supporters celebrate recent victories in Rhode Island and Delaware, many marriage equality proponents are turning to Illinois, where backers hope a final vote on same-sex marriage legislation will occur any day now.

The measure has languished in the House since late February.

“The eyes of the nation now look to Illinois,” said Rep. Greg Harris, the bill’s chief sponsor in the chamber, following the Delaware victory. “Each of us who are called upon to cast this vote must decide how we wish to be remembered by history. I believe my colleagues will want to be on the right side of history, remembered among those who stood for fairness and equality.”

House lawmakers have faced a number of contentious issues this session ahead of same-sex marriage, including a solution to Illinois’ conceal carry law, a comprehensive sex education bill, a measure that would legalize medical marijuana and reforms that would remedy the state’s multi-billion dollar pension crisis.

And with the General Assembly set to adjourn May 31, the clock is ticking on Harris, LGBT rights advocates and House leadership working to pass the bill.

PRESSURE ON LEADERSHIP

With mounting urgency, activists are calling on Speaker Michael Madigan, who rules the Democratic majority in the House, to help secure the final few votes needed to pass the bill into law. Democrats hold 71 seats, while GOP lawmakers hold 47.

“We’ve been working on behalf of marriage equality,” Madigan told reporters last week. “We’re a little closer. But we’re not yet there. But we’re a little closer.”

But some activists are not convinced.

“Madigan commands a super-majority, but is unwilling to spend political capital for gay equality,” said Bob Schwartz of the Gay Liberation Network, an LGBT rights direct action group. “As with other legislation, if Madigan wanted the marriage bill to pass, it would already be law.”

However, Madigan spokesman Steve Brown told Chicago Phoenix the bill’s chief sponsor will determine when it will be called.

Harris, has long been mum on how many votes he’s secured and his timeline for the bill, but said he is close to having secured the 60 votes required for victory. A government source among those backing the bill pegs the current count at 58.

State LGBT advocacy leaders such as Anthony Martinez, executive director at The Civil Rights Agenda, declined to comment on the vote count, and like Harris, confirmed it is near 60.

“We are incredibly close,” said Martinez. “It’s a matter of just getting those last few votes. It’s going to take some higher level conversations the Speaker and the Governor will need to have with the legislators on the fence to hopefully get those last few votes.”

Martinez contends that pressure on lawmakers from both sides will continue to build until there is a vote.

“It all comes down when the Speaker wants to call it — it comes down to getting 60 votes,” he said. “We need the Speaker to really help push this. Now that pensions is done, I hope he takes the opportunity to stick his neck out for this issue and get it done.”

Jim Bennett, the Midwest regional director at Lambda Legal and a leader within the Illinois Unites for Marriage coalition, too, recognizes the push has made it to the end game.

“Governor Markell said he signed the Delaware bill because he didn’t want any citizen to have to wait one moment longer for equality,” Bennett said. “We agree. It is time for the Illinois House of Representatives to act.”

If history is any indication, Madigan is not the only leader who can sway lawmakers to vote in favor of the bill.

Gov. Pat Quinn, a staunch supporter of marriage equality and instrumental force in the passage of the Illinois civil union legislation in 2010, is flexing his own political muscle and meeting with undecided lawmakers to talk them into voting “yes,” he said via phone last week. 

“It’s about time we have a vote,” Quinn said. “The sooner the better.”

RAINBOW FLAGS AND BIBLES

Meanwhile, contentious marriage demonstrations continue throughout the region as LGBT and anti-gay forces vie for dominance in the public square.

Activists from the GLN, TCRA and Fox Valley Pride plan to counter two of three anti-gay protests planned by the Illinois Family Institute Saturday morning in Chicago Heights and Aurora.

Specifically, GLN and TCRA will counter a rally outside the Chicago Heights district office of Rep. Anthony DeLuca, 195 W. Joe Orr Rd., on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. At the same time, advocates from Fox Valley Pride will face off with IFI protesters at the Aurora office of Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, 1677 Montgomery Rd. The advocates had planned to stage another counter in Western Springs, but scrapped that plan early this week.

Last Saturday, the protesters faced off in suburban Downers Grove outside the office of Rep. Ron Sandack, a Republican who promised to vote in favor of marriage equality. Two weeks ago, the two sides faced off in Logan Square on the city’s Northwest Side, and the Saturday before that, outside the Aurora district office of Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia.

“It’s important that we call out the opposition to equal rights as bigotry as opposed to more moderate responses,” GLN C0-founder Andy Thayer said of the protests.

In addition to actions across the state, both sides are utilizing phone banks and robocalls to contact lawmakers and constituents. Just this week, the Chicago-based African American Clergy Coalition issued automated messages to votes in East St. Louis, featuring a message from Rev. James Meeks, a former state senator.

“In my view, same sex marriage should not be law of the state of Illinois,” Meeks said in the recording, used to urge votes to contacts Rep. Eddie Lee Jackson and ask him to oppose the bill.

Earlier this year, SB10 — the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act — sailed through Illinois Senate, passing in committee Feb. 5 and then before the full chamber on Valentine’s Day. The bill passed out of a House committee Feb. 26.

A similar piece of legislation is poised to pass in the Minnesota legislature early next week.

Rhode Island and Delaware will soon join nine other states that recognize gay and lesbian nuptials — Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Connecticut, Vermont, Washington, New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts — as well as the District of Columbia.