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Gay marriage bill clears state Senate, fate in House unclear

The Illinois Senate debates gay marriage Thursday.

The Illinois Senate debates gay marriage Thursday.

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Updated: March 17, 2013 6:19PM

SPRINGFIELD — The divisive battle to make Illinois the 10th state to legalize gay marriage turned to the House after an emotional Valentine’s Day debate in the Senate ended Thursday with an up vote that one supporter described as “one for the history books.”

The Senate’s 34-21 roll call in support of gay marriage now moves the focus to the Illinois House, where supporters predicted they had the votes for passage but offered no timeline when a vote might occur — a sign that the head-counting is close.

“It is time Illinois get rid of its second-class status for a segment of our residents and allow everyone the opportunity to reap the emotional, social and economic benefits and obligations of marriage,” said state Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago), the bill’s chief Senate sponsor.

She wound up amassing a voting bloc that overcame resistance from Downstate Democrats and from some within the Senate Black Caucus. Only one Senate Republican broke ranks with his caucus to back Steans’ legislation.

Gay and lesbian couples packed the Senate galleries as they heard Steans offer up a tearful argument against Illinois’ long-standing prohibition against gay marriage.

“You hear stories about the haters out there and what’s that’s like. Having to walk through this bill with them,” Steans said, referring to gay and lesbian supporters of the initiative, “I felt it myself. It’s very humbling to see what kind of discrimination really is put on people and the kind of hatred that is there through no choice of that person.”

But opponents decried the legislation as an immoral affront to the Bible and said it undermines the age-old tenet that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

“We are knocking down one of the central foundations of society with this bill,” said state Sen. Dale Bivins (R-Dixon), a “no” vote who cited poet Robert Frost and the Scriptures in pushing for the bill’s defeat.

“From the Old Testament to the New, there’s nothing that supports same-sex marriage,” he said.

Other critics said gay marriage would filter into classroom curricula, change businesses and ultimately discriminate against churchgoers who adhere to traditional beliefs on marriage.

“Businesses will be affected. Bed and breakfasts, florists, all those that are wedding-related, will be affected. They will choose to, most of them, dissolve their businesses. That’s what happened in other states,” said state Sen. Kyle McCarter (R-Lebanon), drawing scoffs and laughter from supporters of the bill.

Steans and other backers tweaked an earlier version of her legislation by strengthening language sought by religious groups to ensure that churches wouldn’t be compelled to open their buildings to gay weddings or receptions if they morally oppose same-sex marriages.

“The exemption for religious facilities, such as parish halls, is absolute,” Steans said.

Just as opponents cited the objections of religious groups to the legislation, one supporter fierily drilled into the Roman Catholic church itself for fighting Steans’ bill while in the past being passive toward homosexuality and pedophilia among its priests.

“I … witnessed personally in my eight years in the seminary, you know, homosexuality, alcoholism and even men that were pedophiles,” said state Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-Cicero). “The church and its leaders who didn’t provide any support to these good men of faith allowed them to ruin the lives of many of our loved ones.

“This is the day where you and I could send a message to our faith leaders we will live the greatest commandment of all, and that is love one another,” he said.

Others described Thursday’s Senate vote as a step similar to the epic civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s that overturned archaic prohibitions against interracial marriages, as one example.

“Martin Luther King once said, ‘The moral arc of the universe is long, but it always bends toward justice,’” said Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D-Olympia Fields), who is a candidate in the 2nd Congressional District race and voted for the bill.

“And today, we have an opportunity, each and every one of us, to put our hands on that arc and bend it toward what’s fair and what’s right,” she said.

Among Democrats voting against the bill were Sen. William Haine (D-Alton), Sen. Gary Forby (D-Benton) and Sen. John Sullivan (D-Quincy). Sen. Napoleon Harris (D-Chicago) and Sen. Patricia Van Pelt Watkins (D-Chicago), each members of the Senate Black Caucus, both cast “present” votes.

The only Republican to vote for the bill was Sen. Jason Barickman (R-Champaign), who said he was persuaded to support it because of the safeguards written into the legislation protecting churches opposed to same-sex marriage from recognizing them.

“This is the right thing to do,” Barickman said.

Gov. Pat Quinn, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and even President Barack Obama have called on the General Assembly to legalize gay marriage in the state, and Thursday’s vote marked the first time a gay marriage bill passed either legislative chamber.

“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” Quinn said in a prepared statement. “This historic legislation will strengthen our state by allowing all committed couples to enjoy the same legal protections and benefits of marriage.”

Emanuel weighed in as well, praising the Senate vote and calling for bipartisan support in the House.

“When two people love each other, no government entity should stand in the way of letting them express that love,” Emanuel said.

If the House gets the measure to Quinn, and he follows through on his pledge to sign it, Illinois would join Iowa, Washington, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maryland in allowing gay marriage.

State Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), who is the lead House sponsor of the gay-marriage push, predicted the measure would pass the House but would not commit to a timetable on when he would seek a vote.

“The prospects are very good. I think you saw [Thursday] a vote in the Senate that showed that there’s certainly a difference of opinion on this issue. But as you look at polling, as you look at the fact that we had a victory, as you look at the fact that there are Democrats and Republicans alike that are supporting this, you understand it’s the right thing to do, and now is the time to get it done,” Harris told reporters.

He said a vote in his legislative chamber would be determined by Democratic leadership in the House because it “sets the schedules.”

But a spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) said scheduling a vote on the matter would be left up to Harris to decide.

“House leadership will usually, as they do about every bill, go to the sponsor and see if the sponsor has counted the votes,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said.

And on that question, one leading opponent suggested Thursday supporters have not yet reached the 60-vote threshold needed to get the gay-marriage bill out of the House and sent to Quinn.

“I don’t think the votes are there today, but I’m speculating about the future. I’m sure they’ll work it hard,” said Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, who condemned Thursday’s Senate vote.

“Marriage joins a man and a woman in love to meet one another’s needs, to procreate and to raise children. This is the lifeblood of any human society,” Gilligan said. “This legislation tears at that definition with unknown consequences.”

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