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A black Marine’s fight for gay rights

FILE - In this Nov. 14 2010 file phoformer Illinois State Sen. James Meeks speaks news conference Chicago. As Illinois

FILE - In this Nov. 14, 2010 file photo, former Illinois State Sen. James Meeks speaks at a news conference in Chicago. As the Illinois legislature nears a vote on a bill legalizing same sex marriage that could be before the Illinois House as soon as this week, Meeks opposes its passing. Rev. Meeks, Salem Baptist Church, with its 10,000-seat arena, is a sought-after stopping point in Chicago the Sunday before Election Day. His pastors' coalition has released robocalls _ targeting black lawmakers' territories _ that cite Scripture and say marriage should be between a man and woman. (AP Photo/David Banks, File) ORG XMIT: ILMG103

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Updated: June 28, 2013 6:19AM

This Memorial Day, America honors the men and women who lost their lives to keep us free. In Illinois, this is a day to listen to a living Marine, one who is pleading for his own freedom. His written missive comes at the pivotal moment in a war in Springfield, over same-sex marriage.

‘‘It breaks my heart that any elected leader would use the good people in African-American churches as justification to limit the rights of others, based on the prejudices of how we were raised,” writes Marquell Smith, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran.

Smith’s May 22 “open letter” to several black Illinois legislators addresses the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act pending in the Illinois General Assembly. The measure would provide same-sex couples the same legal rights heterosexuals now enjoy in marriage. It passed the Illinois Senate months ago, but the House version, languishing for weeks, needs 60 votes for passage. Its proponents say they are close.

The measure’s destiny hinges, in part, on the House’s 20-member Black Caucus. Some have not taken a position on the bill, others have spoken against it. For months, influential black pastors have aggressively lobbied for the bill’s defeat. The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn May 31.

“We cannot let an important vehicle of past struggles — African-American churches — become the gatekeepers of the rights to dignity of others,” argues Smith, who is black and gay. ‘‘Who are we to deny someone else the right to marry because we don’t agree with who they love?”

“Equality begins,” he writes, “when people in positions of power enable everyone to live lives of decency and dignity, free from any prejudice in the law. Black folks did not want anyone’s permission to live freely.” Yet, “despite our legacy we are now the very people denying others their equal rights.”

Smith lives that denial. In 2006, after six years of service, he says, he was discharged from the Marine Corps as a result of the nation’s now-defunct “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. “I learned firsthand what separate but equal feels like — and let me tell you it felt awful.”

Some soldiers who suffered under that policy lost their lives for their country. They were not free — especially in the military. In Illinois, veterans like Smith are still not free. Not free to collect 1,138 different types of spousal benefits, including veterans’ benefits. Not free to enjoy the same rights heterosexual couples have, to make decisions about health-care options or hospital visits, without question about marital standing. Not free to legally marry the person they love. The proposed law would secure those freedoms.

“We cannot allow the opposition’s voices to drown out the voices of those who support marriage equality, nor can we support in silence on the sidelines, quietly hopeful for a victory,” Smith says. “Worse, we cannot be silent when members of our community spew hate, whether through words or action.”

This Memorial Day, this veteran’s message is not just for black legislators, or pastors, or churchgoers. It’s for all of us. If those who are willing to die for us are not free, none of us is.

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