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Senate committee approves Illinois gay marriage measure

Senate committee approves Illinois gay marriage measure

SPINGFIELD, Ill. — Legal same-sex marriages are one historic step closer to becoming law in Illinois.

Legislation that would recognize gay and lesbian nuptials was approved by the Senate Executive Committee Thursday afternoon, passing with a 8-5 vote on party lines, and pushing the bill closer to approval during the General Assembly’s lame duck session.

“This is a good step forward,” said Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat who is the chief sponsor of the bill in the Senate, who had tears in her eyes as she exited the room. “I am so grateful to everyone who has been pushing for this bill.”

The bill can now move to the full Senate floor, which Steans plans to do Tuesday if she can account for the 30 “yes” votes necessary to pass the bill.

“Right now, we are missing some of our ‘yes’ votes as I think some of you know, so I think we are likely to be back down here again,” Steans said. “Things are very fluid down here as you know. I think we’re likely to be back in session on Tuesday, the Senate and the House, so we’re going to have to assess and see if we have the time and members present there to do it.”

In addition, Steans suggests that if she can pull off a vote in the Senate Tuesday, it would likely go to the House the same day. However, the chief sponsor of the bill in the House, Rep. Greg Harris, could bring it to vote as early as Sunday, when the House comes back for the lame duck session — however activists on the ground see that as unlikely.

While Republicans on the committee voted against the bill — the most notable “no” came from the Senate’s Republican Minority leader, Christine Radogno of Lemont, who suggested bipartisan support could help pass the bill in the full Senate vote if concerns from conservatives are addressed.

“Public opinion on this issue is rapidly evolving,” she said. “Some districts are more evolved than others and I think that we had a good, respectful discussion here, but there are still concerns.”

Specifically, conservative religious leaders and their lawyers take umbrage with language in the amendment that defines exceptions for religious institutions that choose not to offer their facilities for same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Sen. Dale Righter, a Republican from Mattoon, said he is concerned about a particular phrase in the bill, “the religious organization does not make the religious facility available to the general public for rental or use for which a rental fee or other compensation is required or for which public funding or other public benefit is received.”

Under that language, almost any church could be denied exemption because many are non-profits and receive some sort of public funding from time to time, he argued.

To Righter this may infringe on the religious liberty of some faith organizations. No churches in his district would meet the necessary specifications to be exempt from the law as it stands, he said.

But Steans, joined by John Knight of the ACLU of Illinois and Camilla Taylor of Lambda Legal, who helped author the language, explained that religious institutions absolutely do not have to allow same-sex marriages in their facilities, but that if they rent out spaces for a fee, they cannot rent them to some people but not others under public accommodations laws.

Steans and her witnesses said the bill will not change those laws, but enhance the protections for religious groups.

Radogno said that if the language is revised to add clarity and address their concerns, there may be some Republican support.

“There is potential for bipartisan support when it comes to the floor,” Radogno said. “When it does, I hope that is the case.”

After the vote, Steans said she is willing to sit down with Righter and lawyers from religious institutions to work on the language so that it is consistent with relevant federal rulings.

“We’re certainly not trying to make it so that a tax exemption for the church is opening them up [to legal danger],” she said. “I don’t think that the language does, but I want to sit down with all of the lawyers to check if that is the case, so I’m happy to sit down with them to try to work on it.”

Proponents and activists who have been lobbying in Springfield for bill, cheered the progress.

“This is significant. This is wonderful. This is a wonderful thing,” said Rick Garcia, who has been advocating for LGBT rights for over 30 years and serves as the Equal Marriage Project Director at The Civil Rights Agenda. “I’m starting to cry. This is history.”

Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a House Democrat from Chicago who is openly lesbian, said she is thrilled and very encouraged by Radogno’s comments.

“There is room for bipartisan support on this issue,” Cassidy said. “We talk about being on the wrong side of history and I don’t want my friends and colleagues in the House to regret their vote two, four, six years from now.”

Several witnesses were called to testify on behalf of the bill with Steans, including Theresa Volpe and Mercedes Santos, plaintiffs in the Lambda Legal and ACLU of Illinois marriage equality lawsuit; Bonnie Garneau a longtime member of PFLAG and mother of a lesbian daughter; and Reverend Vernice Thorn of Chicago’s Broadway United Methodist Church, and others.

“Marriage is a lot of things to us,” Volpe said. “Most importantly, it’s about family.”

This is a breaking story and will be updated frequently at Chicago Phoenix

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