Now that Illinois has left same-sex marriage advocates at the altar, the question is inevitable: Will other states start jilting them as well?
“The momentum has been stopped,” predicted David Smith of the Illinois Family Institute, which opposed the same-sex measure that collapsed Friday in Springfield, under a national spotlight. “It shows that it’s not as popular with people as the national media is telling us.”
After months of moving toward what appeared to be a landmark embrace of the controversial unions, Illinois’ same-sex marriage bill died suddenly in the final hours of the 2013 legislative session.
It had already passed the Senate, and Gov. Pat Quinn was eager to sign it. But the sponsor acknowledged in a tearful, halting speech on the House floor Friday night that he didn’t have the support there to call it for the final vote.
“I apologize to the families who were hoping to wake up tomorrow as full and equal citizens of this state,” said Rep. Gregory Harris, D-Chicago, as angry gay-rights advocates raised so much noise in the overhead gallery that they were threatened with removal.
Harris vowed to pushing the bill when the Legislature returns after the summer. He quoted Illinois favorite son Abraham Lincoln: “‘Fellow citizens, you cannot escape history.’”
It was a historic role that Illinois appeared destined to play — 13th in a dramatically growing list of same-sex marriage states, and one of the most prominent.
The sense of a national juggernaut started in the November elections, when gay-rights advocates went 4-for-4: Four states with same-sex marriage on the ballot either approved it or refused to outlaw it. That was followed by a seeming domino effect of three more states in May.
National news organizations and even some conservative leaders had begun referring to it as a tidal wave that had to be heeded. The failure of the measure in Illinois interrupts that narrative.
Just as ominous for advocates is that it’s Illinois. “Bluest” state in the Midwest. Home of President Barack Obama (who, along with former president Bill Clinton, publicly backed the measure). Its Legislature is controlled not merely by Democratic majorities, but “supermajorities” of three-fifths.
If gay marriage fails here, how would a state like Missouri ever even flirt with it?
“The Democrats have 71 votes in the (Illinois) House, and still couldn’t get the 60” needed for passage, noted Smith, of the Illinois Family Institute. “It could be a bellwether.”
Illinois since 2010 has allowed civil unions for same-sex couples, which provides them with most of the same legal benefits as marriage.
Critics of the same-sex marriage measure argued that civil unions should be sufficient to address any concerns about fairness under the law. Proponents say denying those couples the cultural validity of the word “marriage” makes it unfair.
“During the week, I make the coffee. I do the laundry, she does the kitchen,” state Rep. Deborah Mell, D-Chicago, one of several openly gay lawmakers in Illinois, told her House colleagues in an emotional floor speech Friday, after the measure died.
Mell and her partner, Christin Baker, were married in Iowa in 2011.
“On Sunday you’ll find us at church. ... We give to , we pay our bills and we pay our taxes,” Mell said. “We are more alike than we are different. At the end of the day, Christin and I want what you want.”
The bill specified that all legal and governmental rights would apply to same-sex couples, but that “nothing in this Act shall interfere with ... the religious practice of any religious denomination or Indian Nation or Tribe or Native Group.”
That assurance wasn’t enough for opponents who worried that religious organizations opposed to gay unions would ultimately be forced or pressured to accept them.
“We are embarked on a profound change in the fundamental institution of society … an institution which is revered and held sacred,” state Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, warned during Senate floor debate on the bill in February. He called the measure “a strike at the heart” of marriage.
The fallout of the debate hit both parties. The Illinois Republican Party last month forced out its state chairman, Pat Brady, after he told an interviewer that the GOP should support the measure to prove it’s “a party that welcomes all ideas.” Democrats, meanwhile, were fractured along cultural, racial and religious lines, with rural and black urban legislators bucking their party’s position of support.
Nonetheless, proponents engineered Senate passage on Feb. 14 — Valentine’s Day — by a comfortable 34-21 margin, prompting cheers and applause on the Senate floor.
It headed to the House, and supporters talked as if it was already law. But there the bill stayed for more than three months.
Sponsors, counting their votes in the marble back halls of the state Capitol, were a dozen or more short, according to various estimates. For week after week they didn’t call the bill. By Friday, as the end-of-session clock ticked down, its prospects had gone from sure thing to long shot.
The problem wasn’t the Republicans; they were mostly opposed to the bill, but so outnumbered in the House that that wouldn’t by itself matter. The real roadblock was downstate rural Democrats and urban black Democrats — two groups that have often bucked their party’s support for gay rights based on cultural and religious concerns.
Among the African-American lawmakers caught in the conflict was Rep. Eddie Lee Jackson, D-East St. Louis. He was one of those targeted by a “robo-call” campaign by Rev. James Meeks, a prominent black Chicago pastor, trying to pressure black lawmakers into voting no.
Jackson didn’t need a lot of pressuring, having voted against the measure in committee. “This is a fairly liberal area, but when it comes to this particular topic, there are mixed emotions, because of religion,” Jackson told the Post-Dispatch last month.
Proponents could attempt to revive the issue starting in the fall veto session.
Formal same-sex marriage is currently allowed in 12 states: Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington and — as of May — Rhode Island, Delaware and Minnesota.
Additional states recognize various types of same-sex civil unions or domestic partnerships. Missouri is not among them.
“The Democrats have 71 votes in the (Illinois) House, and still couldn’t get the 60. It could be a bellwether.” David Smith of the Illinois Family Institute