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Pastor Confirmed To Head State School Board, Despite Gay-Rights Objections

James Meeks

The Illinois Senate on Thursday confirmed the Rev. James Meeks as chairman of the State Board of Education. It comes over the objections of a gay-rights group.

Meeks is a former state senator, and although he's a Democrat, he was an early supporter of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s candidacy. But he’s also pastor of a megachurch on Chicago’s south side, and has called homosexuality an "evil sickness" (among other controversial statements).

That prompted Equality Illinois' Bernard Cherkasov to denounce the appointment.

"Without a pledge from Meeks that he would abide by the state’s nondiscrimination and anti-bullying laws or a commitment to affirmatively challenge discriminatory actions in the schools, we are not assured that he will look out for all of Illinois' school children," Cherkasov said in a statement

State Sen. Heather Steans, a Democrat from Chicago and sponsor of Illinois’ same-sex marriage law, echoed those concerns during debate.

"The nominee for the chair of the Illinois State Board of Education has made statements that, at best, demonstrate an insensitivity to the pervasive discrimination faced by the LGBT community," Steans said.

Another senator objected to Meeks’ support of charter schools and vouchers. But Meeks is a former Democratic state senator, and colleagues like Sen. Kimberly Lightford, from Maywood, said he deserved the benefit of the doubt.

“All of us have different passions, beliefs, morals, values, religions," Lightford said. "And if you decide not to support this man because of his religious beliefs, then I think that you’re doing yourselves an injustice."

In the end, the opposition didn't amount to much. Meeks was overwhelmingly confirmed on a vote of 49-1. Steans voted "present."

The Senate also confirmed several other cabinet-level officials Thursday:

  • Hugo Chaviano as director of the Department of Labor
  • Erica Jeffries as director of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs
  • Jeff Mays as director of the Department of Employment Security
  • Philip Nelson as director of the Department of Agriculture
  • Bryan Schneider as secretary of the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation
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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