Illinois State Capitol, Springfield, gay news, Washington Blade

Illinois State Capitol (Photo by Meagan Davis via wikimedia commons)

An Illinois Senate committee on Thursday voted 8-5 to advance a measure that would allow same-sex couples to marry in the state.

The vote in the Illinois Senate Executive Committee, which had been expected to take place on Wednesday, came after supporters and opponents of the bill testified during a hearing in Springfield, the state capital.

Reverend Vernice Thorn of Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago noted Jan. 1 marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of her testimony in support of the measure.

“It is in that framework of liberation that I come today in support of allowing my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters the freedom to marry in Illinois,” she said. “In my ordination vows I promised to minister to all God’s people and so for me it is imperative that I provide the same marital and pastoral care to everyone in my congregation.”

Bonnie Garneau of PFLAG Bloomington/Normal said her daughter “does not have the same legal options as my sons” because of a lack of marriage rights for same-sex couples in Illinois. Reverend Kim Beckmann of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America testified that she realized the importance of nuptials for gays and lesbians when she observed how a man was treated during his partner’s funeral.

“Marriage equality is about these profound moments from the joy of a wedding and the sorrows of the death that parts us,” Beckmann said. “Even more, marriage equality is about all those days in between, ordinary days of raising families, keeping a household running and supporting vocations that build Illinois communities. Anyone of us who tries to live faithfully and fully in family life knows the importance of the recognition and community support and the legal support that marriage brings. As a pastor and as a person of faith, I want those supports for every household in my congregation and I want these supports that make for strong, thriving and life-giving communities available to all our Illinois families.”

Mercedes Santos and Theresa Volpe, who are among the 25 couples on whose behalf Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed lawsuits in May after they were denied marriage licenses, also testified during the hearing. Doctor Laura Berk, a psychologist at Illinois State University, stressed children of gays and lesbians are no different than those raised by heterosexual parents.

Nine states and D.C. allow gays and lesbians to tie the knot, while Illinois is among the handful of others that allow civil unions for same-sex couples.

The committee’s vote coincided with the introduction of two same-sex marriage bills in the Rhode Island General Assembly. Delaware, Hawaii and New Jersey are also scheduled to debate nuptials for gays and lesbians this year.

President Obama, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Illinois Republican Party Chair Pat Brady are among those who urged lawmakers to back the measure. Gay “Modern Family” actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson also spoke out in support of the proposal, but 1,700 clergy from across the state urged committee members in a letter they sent to them on Wednesday to vote against the bill.

“The proposal you have before you would redefine marriage,” Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield said as he testified against the measure alongside Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois. “I ask that you vote against this bill because the legislation fails to recognize certain truths. Neither two men or two women can possibly form a marriage. Our law would be wrong if it said that they could. The basic structure of marriage as the exclusive and lasting relationship of a man and a woman committed to a life with the potential of having children is given to us in human nature, and thus by nature’s God. Some have said that this bill would simply extend marriage to some people who have long been arbitrarily excluded from it. They are wrong. The pending bill would not expand the eligibility roster for marriage; it would radically redefine what marriage is for everybody.”

Ralph Rivera of the Illinois Family Institute questioned whether the bill protects religious freedom.

“This is an attack on our particular religious beliefs and the church’s religious beliefs,” he said, broadly referring to a Massachusetts man who claims he was arrested in 2005 because he demanded his son’s school administrators not expose him to homosexuality after he brought a book home that included families with same-sex couples. “It’s not about as some would say oh it’s just two men who want to get married or two women. That’s not it. When this says the church has to do what they ask unless they’re exempt from this in the way this is written.”

State Sen. Heather Steans, the bill’s sponsor, stressed during the hearing that same-sex couples “have the same aspirations we all do.” She also noted a majority of Illinois residents now support nuptials for gays and lesbians.

Steans added the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear cases on the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 provide additional motivation for lawmakers to support the issue.

“There’s a sea change going on here,” she said. “It’s time Illinois join up and catch up to that and join the nine other states that already provide same-sex marriage.”

Advocates look towards incoming legislature

Lawmakers had until the end of the current legislative session on Tuesday to vote on the same-sex marriage bill, but Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov and other advocates conceded that “time to move the bill through both chambers” of the legislature “is not on our side.” They said they plan to advance the measure once the new General Assembly convenes on Jan. 9.

“We have come so far,” Cherkasov said. “Just to be able to witness the historic public debate over the desire of all loving, committed couples to be able to marry in Illinois is a major accomplishment. And with the landmark action by the Senate Executive Committee in favor of the bill, for the first time ever an Illinois legislative body voted to extend the freedom to marry. Never before has the issue gone this far in the Illinois legislature.”

Rick Garcia, senior policy adviser for the Civil Rights Agenda who is Equality Illinois’ former political director, disagreed with this decision.

“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,” he told the Windy City Times after the committee’s vote. “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.”