Activists demand Illinois House act on marriage equality bill

Activist Ryne Patrick chants at a recent marriage demonstration. Photo: Tony Merevick.

Activist Ryne Patrick chants at a recent marriage demonstration. Photo: Tony Merevick.

Drawing on growing momentum on the national stage, LGBT and civil rights groups are again urging the Illinois House to take action on — and approve — legislation that would legalize same-sex marriage in the state.

As Rhode Island, Delaware and Minnesota pass their own marriage equality measures, Senate Bill 10, or the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, continues to languish with inaction in the House since it passed out of committee Feb. 26.

“Now is the time for Illinois to act,” said Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat and chief sponsor of the bill. “The direction of our country is clear, and the judgment of history will be even clearer.”

When the lawmakers — 71 Democrats and 47 Republicans — take their seats in the chamber Wednesday, Harris and House leadership will have only 16 days to pass the bill before session adjourns May 31.

The measure sailed through the Senate exactly three months ago — Valentine’s Day.

On the other side of the statehouse rotunda, the bill needs at least 60 votes before it can be signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn. Quinn, a major proponent of marriage equality, is also urging the House to take action, telling Chicago Phoenix, “It’s about time we have a vote.”

Proponents have nailed down 58 “yes” votes, according to a source familiar with the matter. Harris, however, remains tight-lipped as to how much support the bill has — saying only that he is close to securing the necessary 60 votes — and that he will call it up for consideration as soon as he’s confident it will pass.

Now, with mounting urgency, groups within the Illinois Unites for Marriage coalition such as Lambda Legal, The Civil Rights Agenda, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, the Gay Liberation Network and Equality Illinois are asking supporters throughout the state to apply pressure on their respective representatives to vote in favor of the bill.

“It is our time,” said Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois. “Gay and lesbian couples in Illinois and their families deserve to be recognized. Now, it is imperative that Illinois House members do their job at their next opportunity: heed the call of Speaker Madigan and pass Senate Bill 10.”

But not all LGBT rights activists are convinced that Madigan, who oversees the massive Democratic majority in the House, recognizes the urgency.

“If this bill does not pass … we will put its failure right at the doorstep of Mike Madigan,” said Andy Thayer, co-founder of GLN, at a recent marriage equality demonstration. “… He’s got the power, he’s got the clout to do it.”

Thayer joins a growing faction among marriage equality proponents in the state who contend that Madigan has the ability to provide the few necessary votes needed to pass the bill, and who are questioning why he is allegedly idling.

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule on a landmark case that could potentially strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which denies crucial federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples. If gay and lesbian couples are unable to marry in Illinois, they will still be denied those benefits even if DOMA is struck down, according to Thayer.

In addition, Thayer thinks the growing number of states Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota and, potentially, Illinois will send a message to the high court as it deliberates the discriminatory law: LGBTs demand equal rights, nothing less, he said.

“We need the Speaker to really help push this,” said Anthony Martinez, executive director at TCRA. “I hope he takes the opportunity to stick his neck out for this issue and get it done.”

Recently, a Madigan’s spokesman said calling the bill up for vote is up to Harris and that the Speaker continues to work in its favor. Madigan recently told reporters “We’re a little closer [to 60]. But we’re not yet there.”

But pro-marriage equality activists face an increasingly vocal opposition as the bill stalls.

The Illinois Family Institute, a conservative religious organization that has long advocated against LGBT rights, plans to hold a final demonstration against the marriage equality bill May 18 at 10:30 a.m. in front of the district office of Rep. Silvana Tabares, 2458 S. Millard Ave. in Little Village on the city’s Southwest Side.

Marriage equality supporters and anti-gay protesters have faced off every Saturday since April 20 — most recently last Saturday at two simultaneous counter protests in Chicago Heights and Aurora.

In a Monday blog post, IFI Executive Director David Smith called upon same-sex marriage opponents to continue supporting the organization’s efforts to kill the bill.

“As you may remember, supporters of same-sex marriage predicted that SB 10 would sail through the Illinois House as it did in the Illinois Senate,” Smith said. “After all, the Democrats hold a super-majority in both chambers. But by God’s grace, it hasn’t.”

Smith and IFI protestors argue the legislation will infringe on the rights and liberties of religious institutions who refuse to host gay and lesbian weddings — even though the bill points to current public accommodations law under the state’s Human Rights Act.

“We have seen the promise of equal treatment under the law play out with none of the supposed ill effects that our opponents fear,” Harris said. “We have seen that embracing equality strengthens families, strengthens community and strengthens our nation.”

As the respective laws go into effect this summer, Minnesota, Delaware and Rhode Island will join states where gay and lesbian couples can freely marry — Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Connecticut, Vermont, Washington, New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts — as well as the District of Columbia.