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Marriage Debate Hinges On 'Freedom'

Gov. Pat Quinn
Amanda Vinicky/WUIS

Same-sex marriage will soon be legal in Illinois. The House narrowly approved legislation Tuesday, and Governor Pat Quinn says he'll sign it into law.

The vote came after months of intense lobbying, in which both sides claimed they were fighting for individual freedom.

It's been a busy year for people who care about same-sex marriage in Illinois. Supporters had an early victory on Valentine's Day, when the state Senate approved what backers call "marriage equality" legislation.

Then the opposition geared up, and the proposal stalled in the House. There have been rallies and counter rallies, and speculation a vote might have to wait until next year. Then, this week, the winds shifted. And the bill was up.

"Since we left in May and returned to our districts, the decision was made at the Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act," Rep. Greg Harris began.

A Democrat from Chicago, Harris is sponsor of the marriage bill. Although he's one of just a few openly gay lawmakers, he makes a relatively dispassionate, legal argument.

Harris says because the U.S. Supreme Court only extended protections to "legally married same-sex couples," civil unions are no longer good enough.

"In Illinois we tried civil unions, and that separate status has time and time again proved to fall short," Harris says.

Harris says people are still confused about civil unions, particularly in times of crisis. That can mean parents kept away from their children in hospitals.

"Civil unions have proved to be separate and unequal," Harris says.

Harris has been working on gay marriage for a long time. His speech, like his approach to winning votes from his colleagues, is measured and deliberate.

Others wear their hearts on their sleeves. Rep. Kelly Cassidy is a Democrat from Chicago.

"When I first came to Springfield, one of the most common pieces of advice I got was: don't take anything personally," she says. "I can't do that with this bill, as this bill could not be more personal."

Cassidy, a lesbian, says the debate raises questions about how the state of Illinois defines the family she and her partner have created.

"You've met my boys," Cassidy says. "Josh, Daniel, and Ethan are watching today. They face those questions about our family. Not just on the playground, where you might expect it. But here, in this very building."

“This is not about racial rights," says Rep. David Reis, a Republican from Willow Hill. "This is not about equality pay. This is not about interracial marriage. My wife’s Hispanic. That’s not an issue. We’re not talking about that. This is about individual religious rights.”

Reis says same-sex marriage threatens religious freedom.

Supporters counter by pointing to safeguards in the legislation. Clergy, for example, are not required to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies. And groups like the Knights of Columbus will not have to open their doors to such events. But, Reis says ...

"I've had three judges in my district call up and say, 'David, there is not a facility in your district that's going to perform these ceremonies. They're going to call me. Where's my religious, individual freedoms?' " Reis says.

Debate goes on for more than 140 minutes. Now it's time to vote.

[Sound of roll call being opened.]

The House is quiet. Green and red dots begin lighting up. It'll need 60 to pass.

"Have all voted who wish? Have all voted who wish?" asks Rep. Lou Lang, presiding over the session. "On this question there are 61 voting yes, 54 voting no, two voting present."

Sixty-one votes — just one to spare. Three of the yes votes were from Republicans: Reps. Ed Sullivan of Mundelein, Ron Sandack of Downers Grove, and, in a last-minute surprise, Tom Cross of Oswego. Until a couple of months ago, Cross was the House Republican leader. He stepped down to run for state treasurer.

After the House approves the bill, there's a quick procedural vote in the Senate. Now it's up to Gov. Pat Quinn, who says he will sign marriage into law.

The day ended with parties in the Chicago neighborhood of Boys Town -- and presumably with more quiet celebrations in thousands of homes across the state.

It's going to be a while before we hear any same-sex wedding bells in Illinois. Gay and lesbian marriages won't be legal until next year on June 1st.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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