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Marriage-equality push falls short
by Kate Sosin, Windy City Times
2013-01-09

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State rep. Kelly Cassidy spoke in favor of the marriage-equality bill. Photo by Kate Sosin


By the time pro-gay lawmakers, LGBT activists, media, gay families and even a sitcom celebrity, had appeared in Springfield last Wednesday (Jan. 2), the immediate passage of same-sex marriage in Illinois felt almost inevitable to many.

But what began as a seemingly abrupt push towards equal marriage for Illinois, proved to be a longer stretch, the end of which remains to be seen.

Leading up to Springfield

A year ago, openly gay Rep. Greg Harris sat down with LGBT leaders to discuss the possibility of introducing a bill that would legalize gay marriage. Harris had introduced marriage bills before, but with civil unions taking effect in Illinois, marriage equality appeared closer to possible than ever before.

Stunning victories for LGBT candidates and causes in November further energized LGBT proponents.

Still, when pro-gay lawmakers announced weeks ago that they would push a marriage equality bill in Illinois, some LGBT advocates quietly questioned if the bill could pass in the 97th General Assembly.

"It's absolutely possible, and we don't need people talking like that," responded Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a house sponsor of the bill and an out lesbian, when first asked about that sentiment.

Cassidy's stance was echoed by LGBT activists and supportive lawmakers over the following weeks.

The votes were in fact very close, they said.

Following that announcement, major LGBT groups launched a coalition, Illinois Unites for Marriage. The Coalition listed the support of approximately 30 groups, and was headed by Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois (ACLU) and Equality Illinois.

Equal marriage opponents likewise launched the "Coalition to Protect Children & Marriage." Among its member organizations are the Illinois Family Institute, Eagle Forum of Illinois, Abstinence and Marriage Partnership, Illinois Citizens for Life PAC, Lake County Right to Life, Concerned Christian Americans and Family-Pac.

Chicago Archbishop Cardinal Francis George fired off a letter opposing the measure and calling on parishes across the city to do the same.

"Civil laws that establish 'same sex marriage' create a legal fiction," the letter stated.

Countering that sentiment was support from President Barack Obama, who urged lawmakers to pass the "Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act."

The Chicago Teachers Union weighed in favor of marriage equality, as did groups of prominent businesses, African American leaders and LGBT-affirming clergy.

Sitcom star Jesse Tyler Ferguson also became a vocal proponent of the bill. Ferguson, the openly gay actor who portrays Modern Family's Mitchell (half of a gay couple on the show), made appearances in both Chicago and Springfield to rally support.

But backing for the measure also came from unexpected places.

Pat Brady, chair of the Illinois Republican Party, announced his support for the bill and vowed to call Republican lawmakers to ask them to vote for in favor of it.

"More and more Americans understand that if two people want to make a lifelong commitment to each other, government should not stand in their way," Brady said in a statement. "Giving gay and lesbian couples the freedom to get married honors the best conservative principles. It strengthens families and reinforces a key Republican value—that the law should treat all citizens equally."

The National Organization for Marriage, a national anti-gay group, has vowed backlash against Republicans like Brady.

Despite momentum, the bill's sponsors knew they had a limited amount of time. The Senate had been scheduled to meet Jan. 2-4, while the House would be in Session Sunday through Tuesday.

Still, the lame-duck session offered an unprecedented opportunity for passing tough legislation because outgoing lawmakers could vote without fear of reprisal.

It was a similar strategy used to win civil unions in 2010.

Wednesday

The Senate's Executive Committee room buzzed with excitement Wednesday evening, as gay couples and their children filed into the rows of red leather chairs and waited for the committee meeting to begin.

The hearing had been scheduled for 5:30 p.m., and major LGBT leaders had flocked to the capitol for what many expected to be a historic few days.

But a hearing on the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act did not come, and what started as a little more than a hiccup in the plan to pass the measure ultimately foreshadowed a longer struggle.

Moments before the hearing was scheduled to begin, sponsoring Sen. Heather Steans entered the room and informed coalition members that three senators they had counted on were absent.

Republican Suzi Schmidt of Lake Villa and Democrat James Clayborne of Belleville had been called away from Springfield on family emergencies, leaving sponsors scrambling to secure needed votes. (Schmidt's mother died and there was an illness in Clayborne's family.) Also missing was Evanston Democrat Jeffrey Schoenberg who reportedly finished out his term on vacation in Israel.

All bills must be posted at least 24 hours before they enter committee. Senators could have waived that rule for the marriage bill, but with three "yes" votes missing, Steans could not secure a waiver. As a result, the bill would have to wait at least a day to be heard.

Attempting to hasten the vote, Steans filed the marriage bill as an amendment to a bill already bound for committee. HB4963, an unrelated bill that dealt with automobile rentals and the Collateral Recovery Act, would carry the marriage bill on Thursday.

Advocates expressed hope that missing Senators might return in time for a vote.

The fray Wednesday night was treated as little more than a blip, with sponsors and LGBT groups stating that the setback would not negatively impact the bill's passage.

"It's a technical way for us to get the bill moving," said TCRA's policy advisor, Rick Garcia.

But ultimately, it foreshadowed available Senate votes for the bill.

Thursday

Thursday morning began hopefully for supporters.

Sponsors held a press conference in the Capitol building with sitcom star Ferguson and fiancé Justin Mikita.

Ferguson urged legislators to pass the bill.

"I can't imagine anyone who is a fan of the show who would want to deny Mitchell and Cameron the opportunity to get married," he said.

Other speakers included Steans and House sponsors Greg Harris and Kelly Cassidy.

The new bill was expected in committee late Thursday morning, but the Senate Session ran over, and a committee hearing was rescheduled to mid-afternoon.

LGBT leaders paced the halls, making phones calls and checking in with Cassidy, Rep. Ann Williams and other lawmakers. With repeated delays, the chances of passing equal marriage in the lame duck session appeared to be shrinking.

"It doesn't mean that the whole marriage equality bill in the lame duck session dies," said Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois.

Still missing, however, were the three Senators. Two of those missing sat on the Senate's executive meeting, further slowing matters as the senators had to be temporarily replaced before the amendment could be heard in committee.

Finally, word came that the Senate's Friday session would likely be cancelled. If sponsors could not secure a vote Thursday, their last hope would be a special session on Tuesday. Even that did not guarantee enough time for missing senators to return, and it increased chances that other outgoing senators would be absent.

By the time the committee meeting finally began in the late afternoon, supporters had spent the better part of the day fretting over lost time.

The Executive Committee room was packed with LGBT families, activists, media and opponents.

Committee Chair Sen. Don Harmon called the meeting to order.

Harmon reported that hundreds had submitted online testimony in favor of the bill.

Steans stepped up and made a case for the bill.

"Same-sex couples want to marry for the same reasons we all do," she said. Civil unions, seen as second to marriage, invited the opportunities for discrimination, she said.

Backing that sentiment was the testimony of Theresa Volpe and Mercedes Santos, who approached the microphone with their two young children and explained how their civil union fell short.

Volpe reported that when their son was hospitalized, only one mother was allowed to enter to see him because a hospital administrator argued that only one of the women could be his mother.

"No one really understands what a civil union is referring to," Volpe said. "We ask you to think for a moment about how you would feel if your son were close to death and you were blocked from being by his side, all because you can't say you're a married family."

Also testifying was PFLAG mother Bonnie Garneau, Rev. Vernice Thorn of Broadway United Methodist Church, Rev. Kim Beckman of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Illinois State University psychology professor Dr. Laura Berk.

Republican Sen. Dale Righter challenged Steans' statements that the bill adequately protected religious institutions. "Most churches with which I'm familiar will not qualify," Righter said, adding that bill mandates that churches that accept public funds or charge for weddings will be required to perform same-sex ceremonies.

ACLU LGBT Project Director John Knight and Lambda Legal Marriage Project Director Camilla Taylor countered that the bill would not overturn the Illinois Human Rights Act, which already bans discrimination in public accommodations.

Testifying opponents of the bill echoed Righter's concerns.

Bishop Thomas Paprocki stated that neither two men nor two women can form a marriage and that that the bill would encroach on religious rights.

"The law can be used in ways that violate religious freedom," he said.

Ralph Rivera of the Illinois Family Institute lamented that since Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, children in schools are taught that gay families are normal.

In the end, senators voted along party lines. No votes included Republicans Matt Murphy, David Luechtefeld, Bill Brady, Dale Righter and Christine Radogno. Of those, only Radogno, who has a history of LGBT support, appeared to waver.

"I think that when this comes to the floor, there is a potential for bipartisanship on the bill," she said. She said she voted no because of concerns that the bill marginalized religious institutions.

Voting yes were Harmon, Maggie Crotty, Senate President John Cullerton, Kimberly Lightford, Antonio Munoz, Donne Trotter, Terry Link, Iris Martinez. (Link and Martinez sat in for James Clayborne and Jeff Schoenberg.)

Consequently, the bill passed out of committee 8-5. Proponents leapt from their seats cheering and hugging.

In the hall outside the committee meeting, media swarmed Steans.

Some pressed Steans on the lack of available votes for the measure, questioning if she had pushed the bill prematurely.

"We unexpectedly had members that were not here today. That's beyond my control," she said.

Many left the Capitol building with the understanding that with the hurdle of committee passage cleared, the push for equal marriage would resume Sunday afternoon. Consequently, many who had traveled from Chicago started the trip home.

An hour later, however, coalition members announced that the clock had run out on the measure and that they would try again with the next set of lawmakers.

"With just a handful of days remaining in the current lame duck session, time to move the bill through both chambers is not on our side," wrote Cherkasov to supporters.

A press release announcing the decision celebrated the historic achievement of pushing the bill through committee. And it said that advocates would pursue equal marriage early on in the next session.

Garcia was upset with the decision to back off. He said late Thursday night that he thought the measure had a chance.

"What I have learned—and I have been down here [in Springfield] for 20 years, and I have worked things—is that on every piece of legislation I have worked on, there are dark times, when you think it's not going to go. You push forward, and you stand firm, you move and move until you can't move any more. To throw in the towel now is a stupid maneuver. TCRA is here, and we've been here for past three years, and we knew nothing about this decision until we saw the press release."

Garcia later softened those comments, stating that he was not accusing Steans of throwing in the towel. He remained optimistic about the bill's chances of passage soon.

Moving forward

Despite any internal conflicts between TCRA and other groups working on the bill, activists and sponsors walked away from Springfield Thursday with the same sentiment.

"It's still 'when,' not 'if,'" said Rep. Cassidy.

Harris said that he believes the bill will pass before 2013 runs out.

"I think we will do it," Harris said. "We just need to redouble our efforts."

Harris said that while votes fell short in the Senate and the House was anticipated to be the greater hurdle, he felt he could have secured the votes.

With a Democratic supermajority stepping into office this week, chances of passing the bill soon are only improved.

Lawmakers will be back in session come February, and LGBT groups report that conversations with incoming lawmakers have been ongoing since before elections. Further, activists say that many who voted against civil unions in 2010, including Republicans, are showing a change of heart.

"We're looking at a larger pool of potential voters than we ever did with civil unions," said Jim Bennett, regional director for Lambda Legal Midwest.

Advocates continue to urge supporters to contact their lawmakers and to tell their friends and family throughout the state to do the same.

While time ran out in the lame duck session, they said, a vote remains on the horizon.

Erik Roldan, public information officer for Lambda Legal, said he thinks marriage equality is overdue in Illinois.

"It's time," he said. "There's not stopping us right now."

—Contributing: Tracy Baim


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