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Lesbian judicial nominee sails through hearing

Lesbian judicial nominee Staci Yandle sailed through confirmation hearing (Screenshot via U.S. Senate).

Lesbian judicial nominee Staci Yandle sailed through confirmation hearing (Screenshot via U.S. Senate).

A lesbian judicial nominee to the federal bench sailed through her confirmation hearing on Wednesday, receiving only two questions that came from the U.S. senator who recommended her to the court.

Staci Michelle Yandle, whom President Obama nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois in January, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of a group of five judicial nominees. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) presided over the hearing.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who recommended the Yandle nomination, reflected on her work as an attorney representing “the little guy,” saying that’s what he found attractive about her career.

But Durbin asked if she agrees with a statement from U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts that if the U.S. Constitution says the little guy wins, he wins, but if the Constitution says the big guy wins, he wins.

“I think his statement is absolutely correct,” Yandle replied. “And I think that’s the proper role of a district court judge. It would be certainly what I would value as well. Based on my years of experience, as you mentioned, senator, trying cases on behalf of plaintiffs, it has given me actually a keen appreciation for the importance of impartiality and judicial integrity.”

Durbin also asked her to comment on the Tenth Amendment, which affords powers not enumerated in the U.S. Constitution to the states. Yandle said she hasn’t engaged in analysis of that amendment, but would defer to Supreme Court precedent on the matter.

According to a bio provided by the White House, Yandle has served as a solo practitioner in southern Illinois since 2007, where she focused her practice on civil litigation in federal and state court. She received a rating of “unanimously qualified” from the American Bar Association.

In her introductory remarks, Yandle recognized both her mother and sister, who were present with her in the hearing room, as well as her deceased father, Robert Yandle, whom she says continues to serve as an inspiration.

If approved by the Senate, Yandle would be the first openly lesbian black judicial nominee to receive confirmation during the Obama administration. She’d also be the first openly LGBT person to serve on the federal bench in Illinois.

But Yandle wouldn’t be the first openly lesbian black person confirmed. That distinction belongs to Deborah Batts, who was confirmed to the federal court in New York during the Clinton administration.

Introducing Yandle prior to the questioning, Durbin noted the “historic” nature of her potential confirmation to the federal bench.

“In short, Staci Yandle’s confirmation marks another important milestone in the journey toward equality of opportunity for all Americans,” Durbin said.


Leahy withholds amendments for gay couples in immigration bill

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) withheld UAFA as a committee amendment (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) withheld UAFA as a committee amendment. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on Tuesday withheld amendments to include gay couples as part of immigration reform in the aftermath of speeches — sometimes tearful — from Democrats on the panel who said they couldn’t support the measures.

After an extended speech on why he believes discrimination against gay couples is wrong — Leahy said “with a heavy heart” he wouldn’t introduce the amendments before the Senate Judiciary Committee. They would have made bi-national same-sex couples equal under the law to straight couples for immigration purposes.

“In the immigration context, if you’re an American and fall in love will someone of the same sex from a different country and you get married legally, your spouse will not be treated like any other immigrant spouse would be by your federal government,” Leahy said. “My amendments would change that. I don’t want to be the senator who asks Americans to choose between the love of their life and the love of their country.”

During his remarks, Leahy asked members of the “Gang of Eight” who produced the base bill and were also members of the Senate Judiciary Committee why they decided to exclude gay couples from the initial legislation.

Under current law, gay Americans are unable to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States — even if they’re married — unlike straight Americans. For couples that are married, that’s because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage. LGBT advocates had been pushing Congress to rectify this issue as part of comprehensive immigration reform.

Two amendments were proposed by Leahy. One mirrored the Uniting American Families Act, which would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States. The other would have allowed for the approval of marriage-based green card applications for married same-sex couples.

Democrats who are known for being LGBT rights supporters — Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) — said they were torn on the issue, but couldn’t support the amendments out of fear they would lose Republican support and it would kill the legislative package.

Feinstein said the Supreme Court, which is currently considering the constitutionality of DOMA, may make the issue “moot” because a ruling against the anti-gay law in June would end federal discrimination against married same-sex couples.

“We now know that this is going to blow the agreement apart,” Feinstein said. “I don’t want to lose Sen. Graham’s vote because Sen. Graham’s vote can represent and be used as the rationale for dozens of other [lawmakers] who then will not vote for the immigration bill. … I am for what Sen. Leahy is proposing, I would just implore to hold off on this amendment at this time.”

Schumer, a member of the “Gang of Eight,” said he tried to persuade other senators to support the idea and believes current law is “rank discrimination,” but can’t bring himself to support the amendments because of Republican opposition.

“If we make the effort to add it to this bill, they will walk away,” Schumer said. “They’ve said it publicly, they’ve told me privately — I believe them. The result: no equality, no immigration bill. Everyone loses.”

Prior to the vote, Schumer was targeted by LGBT groups for being the only Democrat on the committee to not voice support for including UAFA as part of the larger package.

Durbin was particularly emotional and had tears in his eyes as he explained why they couldn’t support the measures. A member of the “Gang of Eight,” Durbin said he supports UAFA, but doesn’t see immigration reform as the best vehicle for the measure.

“I believe in my heart of hearts that what you’re doing is the right and just thing … but I believe this is the wrong moment, this is the wrong bill,” Durbin said. “There are approximately 250,000 LGBT undocumented immigrants in America that would benefit from passage of immigration reform. I want to make certain they have that chance.”

LGBT rights groups responded to the committee’s exclusion of same-sex couples from immigration reform with vocal disappointment.

Rachel Tiven, executive director of the LGBT group Immigration Equality, attended the markup and — while she said she’s “proud’ of Leahy for his support — expressed frustration with other Democrats.

“I’m very proud of Sen. Leahy; I’m very dismayed that his colleagues did not stand up with him to talk about the dignity of LGBT immigrant families,” Tiven said. “Only Sen. Leahy talked about the LGBT immigrants that he represents who have dreams, too, and who want to see a good bill passed that will help everyone, and who need immigration reform as badly as any other immigrant.”

Tiven named Democrats on the panel with whom she was particularly disappointed because of their previously articulated support for the LGBT community.

“To hear Sen. Durbin say, ‘Well, this is an outside issue like gun control,’ to hear that Sen. Franken didn’t speak up for families like Ginger and Ness Madeiros, whose visa runs out in August — what are they and their eight-month-old son going to do?” Tiven said. “I can’t imagine how they’re feeling right now about Sen. Franken. How could he not say these are immigrant families, too?”

With the exception of Schumer, Tiven maintained the Democrats on the panel expressed support for including same-sex couples in the reform package, which made their statements during the committee markup surprising.

But Republican members of the panel were most opposed to including the measures. They reiterated their opposition to including the measure in the package and said adopting them would break apart the coalition that helped put it together.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Republican member of the “Gang of Eight,” said the legislation would lose support from evangelical Christians and the Catholic Church, who’ve supported the measure, if those protections were included.

“I support traditional marriage without animosity,” Graham said. “I’m not married; I guess that means maybe I shouldn’t speak at all about it, but I do believe that the people of my state, and the people of other states who have gone different ways than Vermont, believe it would throw the coalition out of balance.”

When Leahy asked Graham if anything in the amendments would require South Carolina to change its state law on marriage, Graham said no, but maintained it would be making him vote in favor of a concept he opposes.

“You got me on immigration; you don’t got me on marriage,” Graham said. “I can’t just tell any more directly; you want to keep me on immigration; let’s stay on immigration.”

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), another GOP member of the “Gang of Eight,” also said he expected the coalition that put the bill together to fall apart if same-sex couples were included.

“This is an issue that is being addressed by the courts right now, I think that it would certainly upset the coalition that we have,” Flake said. “Certainly, we in Arizona, like in South Carolina, have spoken on the issue. It would certainly mean that this bill would not move forward. That would be a real shame, given how far we’ve come and the work that’s gone into this.”

Winnie Stachelberg, vice president of external affairs at the Center for American Progress, pointed at Republicans as the reason why same-sex couples weren’t included in the legislation.

“We’re all disappointed that at this juncture in the process, a small handful of Republicans prevented the provision from being voted on, but we’ve got a long way to go in the process and we’ll continue to work hard to secure the votes on the floor if it comes up,” Stachelberg said.

Following the discussion on the Leahy amendments, the committee reported out the legislation by a 13-5 vote. Supporters of immigration reform in the room — largely members of immigrant community — chanted, “Yes we can! Yes we can!” and embraced senators who voted in favor of the legislation as they snapped photos with them.

According to a report from the Williams Institute, an estimated 275,000 undocumented LGBT Americans would have a path to citizenship as the legislation currently stands if it reaches President Obama’s desk and is signed into law.

In a statement after the vote, Obama, who called for a gay-inclusive bill as part of his vision for reform, commended the committee for completing work on the legislation and urged a floor vote as soon as possible.

“None of the committee members got everything they wanted, and neither did I , but in the end, we all owe it to the American people to get the best possible result over the finish line,” Obama said. “I encourage the full Senate to bring this bipartisan bill to the floor at the earliest possible opportunity and remain hopeful that the amendment process will lead to further improvements.”

Leahy’s announcement came after an Associated Press report saying the White House had asked the Vermont senator to hold off on offering the amendments until the measure goes before the full Senate.

It’s unclear whether Leahy will introduce the amendments once the legislation reaches the Senate floor, which is expected early in June. Passage on the Senate floor would be significantly more difficult than passage would have been in committee if a 60-vote threshold is necessary to overcome a filibuster.

After the committee reported out the bill, the Washington Blade asked Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) whether he wants to see UAFA brought up as an amendment on the Senate floor.

“You’ll have to ask Sen. Leahy about that,” Schumer replied. “As you heard, I believe strongly in UAFA. I don’t think I have to say anything more; I spoke long enough on it.”

Although the amendment for same-sex couples wasn’t included, the committee on Monday rejected an amendment that would have removed a provision supported by LGBT advocates that was included in the base bill.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) offered two amendments that would have eliminated the repeal of the one-year filing deadline for asylum seekers. One amendment failed on a vote of 6-12 and the other failed on a vote of 9-9.

LGBT advocates had supported that provision in the base bill because LGBT asylum seekers often don’t know they have a one-year deadline to apply for asylum in the United States, or lack financial resources to make the application.


3 key Democrats still undecided on ENDA

Joe Manchin, Mark Pryor, Bill Nelson, United States Senate, Democratic Party, West Virginia, Arkansas, Florida, Employment Non-Discrimination Act, ENDA, gay news, Washington Blade

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) are three Senate Democrats who haven’t said how they’ll vote on ENDA. (Photos public domain).

As LGBT advocates ramp up efforts to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, some key U.S. senators this week said they’re still undecided on how they’ll vote on the bill.

Most notable among these holdouts are three Senate Democrats who are not co-sponsors of ENDA — Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) — even in the aftermath of a 15-7 Senate committee vote weeks ago reporting out ENDA to the floor.

Manchin ignored questions from the Blade on how he’ll vote on the bill. His response to the final question: “It’s very nice to meet you.”

Pryor was similarly non-committal. Asked whether he was familiar with the legislation, the senator replied, “I am in concept, but I haven’t seen it or read it yet.”

Asked for a sense of how he’ll vote on ENDA, Pryor said he needed time to review the bill, adding, “I’ll just have to look at it.”

Nelson couldn’t be reached on Capitol Hill for a comment on how he’ll vote on ENDA. The Florida senator’s office — along with the offices of Pryor and Manchin — hasn’t responded for six weeks to the Blade’s requests for comment on ENDA.

It’s not unusual for senators to refrain from saying how they’ll vote on legislation that is imminently before them. Still, Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said that he’s expecting a floor vote this fall after August recess.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said the time has come for the holdout Democrats to co-sponsor ENDA because the more time that passes without their support makes them “look sillier and weaker the longer they drag this out.”

“The three holdout Senate Democrats are alienating themselves further from the Democratic Party and ignoring American values of hard work and success with every passing day that they stubbornly refuse to cosponsor the bipartisan ENDA,” Almeida said.

Although the lack of commitment from Pryor and Manchin may not be surprising because they’re among the Democrats who don’t support marriage equality, Nelson’s silence is striking because he supports same-sex marriage. In May 2010, the senator also voted for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee even before the Pentagon report on open service came out later that fall.

Almeida called on Obama and senior White House officials to take additional action to win ENDA support from Nelson as well as Pryor and Manchin.

“There’s a difference between providing strong leadership and issuing press statements, and LGBT Americans who fear getting fired from their jobs have been waiting for President Obama’s leadership for a long time,” Almeida said. “President Obama, Vice President Biden, Valerie Jarrett, Cecilia Munoz and especially the LGBT staff at the White House should start lobbying Congress to bring home these three holdout Democratic senators.”

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, insisted that White House officials are reaching out to the Senate to ensure a successful floor vote.

“The president is pleased that the Senate HELP Committee, on a bipartisan basis, approved ENDA in July, and we look forward to the Senate’s consideration of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act,” Inouye said. “The White House will continue to reach out to lawmakers on this legislation which would enshrine into law strong, lasting and comprehensive protections against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

LGBT groups launch campaigns to build ENDA support

Amid attention on these three Democratic senators, the Human Rights Campaign announced on Tuesday evening that it launched a $2 million campaign to work to pass ENDA called “Americans for Workplace Opportunity.”

The steering committee is being billed as a bipartisan group of organizations and consists of the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Unity Fund, HRC, the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and the Service Employees International Union.

Heading the campaign will be Matt McTighe, an LGBT activist who most recently was Marriage Project Director for Gill Action after leading the campaign to bring marriage equality to Maine last year.

In a statement, McTighe said the campaign plans to “mobilize the supermajority of diverse Americans” who believe LGBT people should be protected from workplace discrimination.

“With the tremendously successful mark-up of ENDA earlier this month, we have strong momentum as we build to reach 60 votes on the Senate floor,” McTighe said. “We will use all of our resources including grassroots action and strong corporate support to make it clear that the American people want action on this bill.”

In addition to states represented by Senate Democratic holdouts on ENDA — Arkansas, Florida and West Virginia — the campaign will be engaged in grassroots activities to encourage Republican votes for ENDA in Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania. According to HRC’s announcement, the eight steering committee members represent more than 5.6 million members and supporters.

It’s noteworthy that McTighe’s stated goal with the campaign is “to reach 60 votes” to pass ENDA on the Senate floor. Freedom to Work’s Almeida has been more bullish about ENDA and has projected between and 60 and 65 votes for the bill in the Senate.

At the same time, statewide LGBT advocacy groups in Florida and West Virginia say they’ve met with the respective senators from their states to encourage them to support ENDA.

Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, said she’s “optimistic” that Nelson will vote in favor of ENDA following a D.C. meeting that her organization — along with transgender activist and former Seal Team 6 member Kristin Beck — had in June with the Florida senator.

“Our team had a great conversation about the importance of protections for LGBT people, and were able to have an honest dialogue with the senator,” Smith said. “The meeting clearly had an impact and we are continuing to work with his staff to keep this on the front burner.”

Casey Willits, a spokesperson for Fairness West Virginia, said her organization has had conversations with Manchin and his staff on ENDA.

“When ENDA is voted on in the Senate, we trust that Sen. Manchin will act on the West Virginia values of hard work and fairness,” Willits said. “I’m sure when Sen. Manchin votes, he will have the story of Sam Hall, a gay West Virginian coal miner, on his mind. It’s our goal to have two senators in the ‘yes’ column for ENDA.”

Internal discussions within the Senate are also underway. A Senate aide familiar with ENDA, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the five original co-sposors of the bill — Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Tom Harkin — met recently to discuss a whip strategy for ENDA.

Additional conversations will happen in the next few weeks, the Senate aide said, in anticipation of a Senate floor vote before the end of the year.

The aide also said Merkley met with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) prior to her “yes” vote on ENDA during the committee vote and also met recently with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who’s considered a swing vote on ENDA, to talk about the bill.

Jeffrey Sadoksy, a Portman spokesperson, confirmed that Merkley met with the Republican senator and said the meeting took place last week, but wasn’t able to provide any information on whether Portman would vote for ENDA in the wake of the meeting.

Conversations over scheduling a vote apparently haven’t taken place yet within the Senate Democratic leadership. Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said he’s unaware of those conversations happening at this time.

“I have not heard any, but there’s strong support for it,” Durbin said. “Sen. Merkley is, I believe, the lead sponsor — at least that was my understanding a few weeks ago. I hope we can schedule this quickly.”

Flake calls trans protections ‘problematic’

As groups push Senate Democrats to vote for ENDA, support from key Republicans is also necessary to surpass the 60-vote threshold needed to end a filibuster in the Senate. Most of the states targeted in the “Americans for Workplace Opportunity” campaign are represented in the Senate by Republicans.

One Republican who’s considered in play is Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.). Asked by the Blade about ENDA, Heller initially said he was unfamiliar with the bill.

When the Blade explained the legislation would prohibit job discrimination against LGBT people, Heller said, “I’m against discrimination.” Asked if that means he’ll vote for the bill, Heller repeated, “I’m against discrimination.”

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said on Capitol Hill in response to a question on ENDA, “I’m familiar with it, but I haven’t studied it,” and refused to comment on how she’d vote on the bill.

Another Senate Republican — Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) — is considered in play because he voted “yes” in 2007 on a gay-only version of ENDA as a U.S. House member. Asked by the Blade about ENDA, Flake recalled that he voted for the measure while serving in the lower chamber of Congress.

But Flake refused to offer a commitment on ENDA this time around, saying the language has changed since 2007 and that he needs to revisit the bill.

“I don’t know if it’s going to go back to the original or not, and so, until I see the language, I can’t tell you,’ Flake said.

When the Blade pointed out that a major difference between the 2007 version of ENDA and the current one is the addition of protections for transgender workers, Flake suggested that could be a sticking point for him.

“I know there were some issues there that came up for employers, so that was problematic,” Flake said. “I’ll have to look at the language and see.”

Flake’s counterpart from Arizona — Sen. John McCain (R) — asserted he was completely oblivious to ENDA. Asked by the Blade if he was familiar with the legislation, McCain replied, “I”m not familiar with it.”

When the Blade explained the bill provides non-discrimination protections for LGBT workers, McCain said, “I have not looked at it. I’m engaged in a whole lot of issues and I haven’t been engaged in that.”

Asked if he could say how he intends to vote on the bill, McCain replied, “No, of course not, because I haven’t looked at it.”

Jeff Cook-McCormac, senior adviser to the newly formed Republican-affiliated American Unity Fund, said his organization is building off work advancing LGBT initiatives throughout the states and in the last few weeks has held conversations with a “wide berth” of Republicans to persuade them to vote for ENDA.

“One of things we’ve learned over the years is not to count people out,” Cook-McCormac said. “As I’m sure you’ve seen with the vote on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal and many of the state legislatures both on marriage and non-discrimination, it’s really not fair to assume that any legislator is hostile to this legislation.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), among the Republicans to vote in favor of ENDA in committee, said he doesn’t know if his vote would bring along other GOP senators to support the bill as he explained his support for ENDA.

“I don’t believe in discrimination against anybody,” Hatch said. “I do draw the line on marriage, the definition of marriage. I just think that would be a tragic shame to change that. But I don’t like the way some people are treated.”

Even if the Senate approves ENDA, questions remain over the strategy to pass the legislation in the House, where Republican control makes advancing the bill difficult to say the least.

For his part, Hatch was pessimistic about the prospects of the House taking up ENDA even after a successful Senate vote.

“I doubt the House is going to do that” Hatch said. “I really doubt that, but I can’t speak for them either. You never know.”

Cook-McCormac acknowledged that much of the attention that LGBT advocates put on ENDA is devoted at this time to moving the legislation in the Senate.

“Getting the House to move is going to require initial Senate action,” Cook-McCormac said. “I think that the real critical focus for this coalition of business and labor, of the gay community and employers, is building on the overwhelming vote in the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee to get to floor consideration, to get the majority that we need and then to begin to work in a careful and thoughtful way with House Republicans to think through ways that this important measure can be realized.”


Durbin calls on Ill. lawmakers to approve marriage equality

Dick Durbin, Richard Durbin, United States Senate, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade, Illinois

Sen. Dick Durbin is calling on Ill. lawmakers to pass marriage equality (D-Ill.) (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The No. 2 Democrat in the U.S. Senate is calling on legislators in his state to pass legislation that would make Illinois the 10th state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage.

In a letter dated Jan. 3 to state lawmakers, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) talks about his own evolution on the issue of marriage rights for gay couples, saying he’s concluded that “ending this discrimination” against them is “consistent with the evolution of civil rights in our democracy.”

“Every generation is given a chance to put an end to some form of discrimination in America,” Durbin writes. “As you consider this historic vote, I hope you will reflect on those you will meet after it is cast. An affirmative vote will give you a chance to look into the eyes of those who have faced discrimination throughout their lives and tell them that you voted to affirm their rights under the law.”

Durbin has previously expressed support for marriage equality and among the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who voted to report out to the Senate legislation that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act last year. As a U.S. House member in 1996, Durbin voted in favor of DOMA.

Supporters of same-sex marriage in Illinois were pushing to pass same-sex marriage legislation by the time the General Assembly adjourns on Jan. 8. According to the Windy City Times, the legislation won’t come to a vote this week and “repeated foibles” bring into question whether the bill will pass before the next session begins.

Durbin’s letter follows a statement issued by a White House spokesperson last week indicating President Obama also supports the Illinois marriage equality legislation and would vote in favor of it if he were a legislator in the state, which he was from 1997 to 2004.

The office of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the junior senator from Illinois, didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on the marriage equality legislation. Kirk had only Thursday returned to the Senate after recovering from a stroke.

Had Kirk come out in support of the legislation, he would be the first Republican member of the U.S. Senate to endorse marriage equality. Illinois State GOP Chair Pat Brady has called on Republicans in the state to support the bill, but said he was doing so in a personal capacity.


Ill. Senate committee approves same-sex marriage bill

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.”


Ill. legislators reintroduce same-sex marriage bills

Greg Harris, gay news, Washington Blade

Gay Illinois state Rep. Greg Harris. (Photo by Leah Jones via Wikimedia)

Illinois lawmakers on Wednesday reintroduced bills that would legalize marriage for same-sex couples in the state.

State Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) and gay state Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago) introduced the measures in their respective chambers on the first day of the 2013 legislative session.

“It is significant that Rep. Greg Harris and Sen. Heather Steans plan to use the first day of the new General Assembly to reintroduce the bills recognizing the right to marry for all Illinois couples,” Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov said before the legislators formally introduced the same-sex marriage bills. “We expect the House and Senate to promptly pass the measure and remove the current barrier to the equal availability of civil marriage.”

The Illinois Senate Executive Committee on Jan. 3 voted 8-5 to advance a same-sex marriage measure, but lawmakers did not take up the proposal before their legislative session ended on Tuesday. President Obama, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Illinois republican Party Chair Pat Brady are among those who have urged legislators to back the measure.

Illinois is among the handful of states that include Delaware and Rhode Island in which lawmakers are expected to consider same-sex marriage bills this year.

Nine states and D.C. currently allow gays and lesbians to tie the knot.


BREAKING: Illinois Senate approves same-sex marriage bill

Greg Harris, gay news, Washington Blade

Gay Illinois state Rep. Greg Harris. (Photo by Leah Jones via Wikimedia)

The Illinois Senate on Thursday approved a bill that would allow gays and lesbians to marry in the state.

The 34-21 vote came after more than an hour of debate.

“This is about equal protection under the law,” state Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D-Chicago Heights) said.

“The sky is not falling,” state Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) added.

State Sen. Jason Barickman (R-Pontiac) is the only Republican who voted for the bill. State Sens. Gary Forby (D-Benton,) William Haine (D-Alton) and John Sullivan (D-Rushville) opposed the measure, while four other Democrats either voted present or abstained.

Sen. Kyle McCarter (R-Lebanon) predicted the measure would force teachers to include same-sex marriage in their curricula. He also said it would adversely affect bed and breakfasts, florists and other wedding-related businesses.

“People will be discriminated against,” McCarter said as supporters who gathered inside the chamber laughed. “Promises from the proponents that this bill will not discriminate; that’s not true.”

Gay state Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago,) who co-sponsored the measure with state Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago,) applauded the vote.

“The momentum is building,” he said. “More and more House members are telling me they want to be on the right side of history and that they intend to support the bill.”

President Obama, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Illinois Republican Party Chair Pat Brady are among those who had urged legislators to back the measure.

“While this historic day is only half the battle, the Senate today put Illinois on the road to recognizing that, as President Obama said in his inaugural address, ‘the love we commit to one another must be equal,’” Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov said.

Same-sex marriage advocates from across the country also celebrated the bill’s passage.

“We thank the Illinois Senate for passing this historic bill, making this a sweet Valentine’s Day for loving same-sex couples across the state,” Jim Bennett of Lambda Legal said. “The momentum for marriage continues on this day American holiday honoring love and commitment, and we now urge the House of Representatives to join the right side of history and grant same-sex couples the dignity and respect of marriage.”

“We celebrate this wonderful gift of love on Valentine’s Day as the bill moves for consideration in the state House,” Maureen McCarty, online content and marketing manager for the Human Rights Campaign, wrote on the organization’s website.

The vote took place less than a month after the Rhode Island House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill that would allow same-sex couples to marry in the Ocean State. Delaware and New Jersey lawmakers are expected to consider the issue in the coming weeks and months.

Illinois is among the handful of states that currently allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions. Maryland is among the nine states and D.C. that permit gays and lesbians to marry.

“I commend the Illinois Senate for passing the marriage equality bill today,” Gov. Pat Quinn tweeted shortly after the vote. “Full equality for all people is right for Illinois.”

The Illinois House of Representatives is expected to consider the bill in the coming weeks.

“The vote today for marriage was even stronger than the vote in fact for civil unions,” Cherkasov told the Washington Blade. “We came out from that with a really strong momentum.”


Ill. House committee schedules gay marriage vote

Greg Harris, gay news, Washington Blade

Gay state Rep. Greg Harris sponsored the same-sex marriage bill in the House. (Photo by Leah Jones via Wikimedia)

The Illinois House Executive Committee on Feb. 26 will vote on a bill that would allow same-sex couples to marry in the state.

The hearing will take place less than two weeks after the state Senate approved the measure by a 34-21 margin.

President Obama, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Illinois Republican Party Chair Pat Brady are among those who had urged legislators to support the bill. Governor Pat Quinn said he will sign it into law if it reaches his desk.

“Illinois has a role in the civil rights movement and has been consistently on the forefront of ensuring equal rights for all people throughout history,” his spokesperson, Brooke Anderson, told the Washington Blade after the state Senate approved the bill. “We just think it’s the next step in achieving equality for all. Gov. Quinn believes it’s the right thing to do.”