Illinois gay marriage bill introduced
By Crystal Yednak
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
February 22, 2007, 7:13 PM CST
A state lawmaker fired up the gay marriage debate in Illinois Thursday by introducing a bill that would legalize marriage between same-sex couples.
"Illinois is a heartland state but has always been a leader in civil rights and social justice issues," said the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago). "It's the right thing to do."The proposal would eliminate wording in state law that marriage is between "a man and a woman" and substitute the phrase "two persons."
Massachusetts is the only state that recognizes same-sex marriages. Just this week, New Jersey became the third state to offer gay couples civil unions, joining Connecticut and Vermont.
Last year, opponents of gay marriage tried to head off just this sort of action in Illinois. They tried to put a question on the ballot asking voters whether marriage should be defined as a union between "one man and one woman." But the Illinois State Board of Elections ruled the group hadn't collected enough valid signatures.
David E. Smith, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, which helped organize the drive, said the group is considering another ballot drive this year.
The proposed legislation could be the thing that mobilizes the group again, Smith said.
"We believe that government doesn't have a responsibility to promote or protect the homosexual lifestyle," he added.
Harris, who is openly gay, said a significant education effort would be necessary to get his bill passed, as was the case in 2005 when a gay rights bill passed in Illinois.
The gay rights bill was first introduced in the mid-1970s but it took decades to build legislative support, said Rick Garcia, director of public policy for Equality Illinois.
Garcia said the gay marriage bill is necessary to protect gay couples and their families so partners can make health decisions, qualify for pensions and benefits and have a say in the disposition of remains, among other things.
Still, advocates know the word "marriage" complicates the issue.
"When we use the word marriage, what people are really thinking of is the sacrament of matrimony. We're talking about civil marriage," Garcia said.
Harris said the title of the bill—the "Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act"—is intended to calm the concerns of religious groups who worry they would be forced to recognize same-sex marriages as well.
"We wanted to reaffirm in this bill that there is no religion, no church, no temple, no mosque that we are trying to compel to consecrate marriages," Harris said.
Harris said supporters talked about the idea of pushing for civil unions instead. Civil unions offer many of the same protections of marriage, but not the title. But it was "decided that marriage is the fully equal term and that's where we want to begin," he said.
Garcia said advocates will have an uphill battle getting it passed.
"I cautioned people—don't start planning a June wedding in Illinois, it's going to take awhile for us to get the support legislatively," he said.