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Illinois needs to finish what Supreme Court started

Supporters gay rights march past Wrigley field following rally Boystown neighborhood Chicago Wednesday June 26 2013.  In major victory

Supporters of gay rights march past Wrigley field following a rally in the Boystown neighborhood of Chicago, Wednesday, June 26, 2013. In a major victory for gay rights, the Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a provision of a federal law denying federal benefits to married gay couples and cleared the way for the resumption of same-sex marriage in California. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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Updated: July 30, 2013 8:04AM

Months before Congress approved the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that was struck down Wednesday by the Supreme Court for its discriminatory treatment of same-sex couples, Illinois legislators also felt compelled to man the barricades against the threat of gay marriage.

Republicans, who at the time controlled both chambers of the General Assembly, led the charge. But most Democrats followed right along, fearful of swimming against an anti-gay backlash that was sweeping the nation — or at least its halls of government.

The combined House-Senate vote was an overwhelming 129-22. Gov. Jim Edgar quickly signed the gay marriage ban into law.

I mention it here in part to show how far we’ve come in a relatively short space of time — but more important to emphasize how Illinois needs now to finish what the Supreme Court started Wednesday by undoing the rest of the nastiness of 1996.

The ironic result of the historic decision extending gay rights is that its immediate impact is to sharpen the second-class citizen status of same-sex couples in states like Illinois that continue to ban gay marriage.

Unlike couples in the 13 states that have legalized same-sex marriage, gays and lesbians in Illinois will continue to have to fight for the same federal rights, benefits and responsibilities accorded opposite-sex couples living next door.

But if Illinois legislators take the Supreme Court ruling to heart, the fight shouldn’t last much longer.

The Supreme Court’s majority spoke directly to the ill-conceived motivation of Congress “to defend the institution of traditional heterosexual marriage” and to express “moral disapproval of homosexuality.”

In short, the court said these weren’t proper justifications for a law that has the purpose and effect “to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage.”

It’s telling then that Illinois legislators used the same justifications in 1996 to explain away their pre-emptive strike at gay couples, peppering the floor debate with the usual references to the “homosexual lifestyle” and how it could “denigrate the institution of marriage.”

At the time, Hawaii was on the verge of becoming the first state in the U.S. to legalize gay marriage, or so the thinking went. As it happens, the Aloha State still is not among the 13 that allow same-sex couples to wed.

Illinois law already made clear that marriage was between a man and a woman, but it also recognized valid marriages from other states. If Illinois didn’t ban gay marriage, the state would have to grant recognition to same-sex couples legally married in Hawaii, sponsors warned.

The perceived threat was real enough that state after state either enacted laws or scheduled referenda on constitutional amendments to ban such perceived unholy unions.

What was really going on was that Republican strategists had identified the threat of gay marriage as a wedge issue that could be used to motivate conservative voters to come out more strongly in that November’s national election. Democrats meekly went along to blunt the impact.

The Illinois bill’s chief sponsor, a young state senator named Peter Fitzgerald, went so far as to close the debate with a story about a third-grade boy adopted by two gay men.

“Every day this boy is dropped off at school by his parents, and the other kids make fun of him. And he’s constantly crying. He’s in the principal’s office. He’s constantly fighting,” Fitzgerald said disapprovingly, offering his story as an argument in favor of further discrimination against gay couples.

How wonderful then that the Supreme Court observed quite the opposite in the impact of the Defense of Marriage Act.

“It humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples,” the court wrote. “The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.”

I can understand how in 1996 we might not have understood that the problems that third-grader was having stemmed more from the attitudes of those other kids’ parents than from his own. But it’s inexcusable in 2013.

The Illinois Supreme Court might pick up where the U.S. Supreme Court left off and strike down Illinois’ prohibition on gay marriage. But it could still take another 18 months before a lawsuit now making its way through the Cook County courts gets that far.

The better solution would be for the Legislature to step up and make amends for its pandering in 1996.

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