Any day now the Illinois General Assembly is expected to vote on civil-unions legislation. The governor has voiced his support, and a recent a Chicago Tribune poll showed 57 percent of the public favors the legislation.
"I think we're awfully darn close," state Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, an openly gay lawmaker, told the Chicago Sun-Times recently.
And yet the three-year long effort to enact civil unions is by no means a done deal. In part, that's because the nation's largest anti-gay marriage organization and the Roman Catholic Church have stepped up efforts to derail the legislation.
The National Organization for Marriage ( NOM ) , based in Washington, D.C., is rallying opposition to the measure known as the Religious Freedom Protection & Civil Unions, or Senate Bill 1716.
"With support from Governor Quinn, gay marriage advocates are pushing for a vote on a bill to give same-sex couples all 'the same legal obligations, responsibilities, protections, and benefits' of marriage," said NOM in a recent letter to supporters. "We have a short window for action."
NOM's Illinois offensive comes at the same time the Southern Poverty Law Center has listed the organization among "hate groups" for NOM's "repeated, groundless name-calling" against gays and lesbians, according to the Washington Post.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Francis George has called upon lawmakers to reject civil unions. "Everyone has a right to marry, but no one has the right to change the nature of marriage," he said in a press statement.
"Marriage is what it is and always has been, no matter what a legislature decides to do; however, the public understanding of marriage will be negatively affected by passage of a bill that ignores the natural fact that sexual complementarity is at the core of marriage," the cardinal said.
In the statement, issued by the Catholic Conference of Illinois, the church's lobbying arm, George went on to argue, "There is an inherent conflict between this legislation and religious liberty."
The cardinal suggested that civil unions could require faith-based institutions to provide adoptive or foster-care services or an array of other social services to same-sex couples in civil unions. And, George said, the legislation does not protect small businesses if their owners do not wish to extend family benefits to employees in civil unions.
Still, the Illinois conference statement says the Church teaches that homosexuals "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity," according to its catechism.
But spokespersons from Equality Illinois, the state's largest gay-rights organization, and pro-LGBT Catholic activists said Cardinal George and his out-of-state allies are dead wrong and pastorally insensitive.
"NOM's attacks on proposed civil unions are as misleading as they are predictable, and I am appalled at the length to which NOM would go to harm our families," said Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, in a press statement.
"We are especially disturbed at the misleading statements by the [ conference ] and [ the cardinal ] that the law would force churches to recognize civil unions. The bill explicitly states: 'Nothing in this Act shall interfere with or regulate the religious practice of any religious body,'" explained Cherkasov.
Consequently, faith-based clergy and various denominations are ''free to choose whether or not to solemnize or officiate a civil union,'' according to the bill.
Sure enough, civil unions enjoy wide support among people of faith. More than 300 ordained clergy have signed Equality Illinois' Faith Petition to legislators. The signers of the petition represent more than 270 congregations and seminaries from nearly 80 cities throughout Illinois.
Rick Garcia, Equality Illinois' director of public policy, went even further in voicing vexation about George. "The Cardinal is either misinformed on the nature of the bill or is lying," he told Windy City Times. "The bill has nothing to do with adoption, foster care or the status of marriage, and has everything to do with fairness for same-sex couples."
The cardinal's attempt to influence legislation and public policy is not the first time the Chicago archdiocese has tried to stymie civil-rights protections for gays. During the 1980's when Chicago's gay-rights ordinance came before the city's aldermen, the then archdiocesan chancellor released a letter opposing the statute. Ultimately, the effort failed.
"Let me put it this way," said Garcia, referring to church politicking. They don't have the influence they wish they had."
For his part, Harris told the Sun-Times, ''I'd say either [ George ] is being misinformed about the state of the law in Illinois or they're trying to make more of it than there really is.''
Pro-gay Catholic advocates voiced annoyance. Chicago's Rainbow Sash Movement took strong exception to Church hierarchy's foray into secular politics.
"Cardinal Francis George is a contradiction," wrote Joe Murray, RSM executive director, in a blog posting. "On the one hand he claims that LGBT citizens who pay taxes, unlike the cardinal, should take the back seat when it comes to equal rights. On the other hand, he claims to promote the human dignity of all. This is not only a contradiction, it is a promotion of intolerance, over the reasonableness and fairness in a society that is based on justice."
The president of Chicago's Dignity chapter, Chris Pett, said he was struck most by Church reliance on scare tactics. Rather than address the issues, he said George introduces "fear about possible abuses."
Pett also took issue with the cardinal's theological reliance on natural law and sexual complementarity to argue against civil unions. "The generative nature of love is just as well reflected by same-sex couples in committed relationships" as couples in opposite-sex unions, he said.
For its part, Equally Blessed urged Illinois Catholics "not to be swayed by Cardinal George's attempts to mislead them about civil unions," adding, the faithful "understand that all families and all couples in loving, committed relationships should have the same legal protections and obligations."
As Chicago-based spokeswoman Nicole Sotelo explained, "Once again, the Cardinal has shown that Church leadership is out of touch with the needs and beliefs of Catholics," continuing, "We urge him to meet with people who would be helped by this bill, so that he can see just how important it is to the people he shepherds."
The Catholic offensive against civil unions brings together a brain trust of Catholic philosophical, theological and political thinkers. Cardinal George, for instance, has voiced support for the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, an interfaith manifesto for socially conservative Evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox Christians.
The declaration subtitled "A call of Christian Conscience" articulates a far-ranging, pious social agenda for life, marriage, and religious liberty.
The section on marriage, moreover, links the specter of polygamy with same-sex marriage. "We acknowledge that there are those who are disposed towards homosexual and polyamorous conduct and relationships, just as there are those who are disposed towards other forms of immoral conduct," the declaration states.
Citing "compassion" for "those so disposed" and "respect [ for ] them as human beings," the declaration, nevertheless, considers them to be "wayward."
What does the declaration recommend? "Jesus calls all who wander from the path of virtue to a 'more excellent way.'"
The Manhattan Declaration concludes with a call to civil disobedience: "Nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless same-sex immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriage or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know about it, about immorality and marriage and the family."
What's more, NOM's Robert P. George, Princeton University's McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, served on the declaration drafting committee. Brian Brown, NOM's executive director and president of the board of directors, and Maggie Gallagher, chairman of the board, are declaration signatories. Professor George is NOM chairman emeritus. In other words, NOM's top leaders are Catholics.
"Isn't it ironic that the name used in the development of the atomic bomb, the Manhattan Project, which destroyed so many lives, is now taken up to do the same thing to gay people," said Charles Martel, board member of Catholics for Equality.
"No wonder one-third of Roman Catholics has left the Church," he added. "Those of us who remain know that attacks on gays stem partly from a closeted gay clergy," explained Martel. "Discomfort with acknowledging their sexual orientation plays out with distortions, lacking any genuine institutional transparency."
And he said, "Gay people are insulted every time we are told to be treated with compassion, which is the farthest from the truth, because we are attacked and told to be invisible every step of the way."