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Game time for gay rights in Springfield

Ernie Banks

Ernie Banks

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Updated: April 11, 2013 6:41AM

Let’s talk about same-sex marriage in sports terms.

In Ernie Banks’ day, shortstops were known for their speed and defense. But Mr. Cub broke the mold. A power-hitting shortstop, in 1958 he hit 47 home runs. At the age of 82, he’s knocked it out of the park again coming out in favor of Illinois legalizing same-sex marriage.

On the Chicago sports stage he’s not alone. Richard Dent, who went into the NFL Hall of Fame, is tackling this issue. As are former Bears Hunter Hillenmeyer and Brendon Ayanbadejo. They’ve all lent their names and reputations to an issue that more and more Americans are backing or, at the very least, accepting.

The Illinois Senate has already approved same-sex marriage, and there is a chance next week of a showdown vote in the House in Springfield. But by most accounts, supporters remain a few votes shy of the 60 needed for passage.

“It’s very close,” Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) told me by phone. She sponsored the bill in the Senate that passed with bipartisan support.

In the House, state Rep. Mike Zalewski (D-Chicago), a Roman Catholic, told me that though he’s on the fence, the amendments attached to the Senate bill that protect religious institutions from being forced to recognize same sex marriage helped its passage. And on those grounds, he said, “It was much more ready to go over to the House.”

State Rep. LaShawn Ford, also a Catholic Democrat from Chicago, is similarly on the fence but says he is open to the possibility of voting for it. But Ford expresses sensitivity to the Austin community that dominates his district.

“Most of our communities are filled with churches on every corner and . . . we have built relationships with those ministers and pastors. And want to continue to work . . . so they realize that one vote will not destroy our relationship,” he told me.

Ford, who says members of his own family are gay, sees this as a matter of human rights.

As the House wrestles, the conservative wing of the state Republican Party on Saturday canceled a meeting to dump its chairman, Pat Brady, over the very same issue. Brady publicly supports legalizing same-sex marriage. The conservatives couldn’t muster the votes to get rid of him.

“This is a civil rights issue,” Brady has repeatedly argued.

In the House, Republican leader Tom Cross has made it clear that even if he votes against the bill, he supports the members of his caucus who vote in support of it. Cross and U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) have been crucial in mustering support to keep Brady as the chairman of the GOP.

Back in the General Assembly, a vote on the same-sex marriage bill looms large.

To put it in sports terms, as Ernie Banks and his fellow athletes did in a letter posted by Illinois Unites for Marriage, “Any time a player is not treated with fairness and respect, the game is diminished.”

It’s game time for lawmakers in Springfield.

Batter up.

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