SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Two Illinois lawmakers said Thursday that they will seek to legalize gay marriage when the General Assembly reconvenes early next year – a push that comes just 18 months after the state started allowing civil unions for same-sex couples.

Rep. Greg Harris and Sen. Heather Steans, both Chicago Democrats, declined to detail the status of roll-call votes in each chamber during a conference call with reporters. But Harris has previously said he wouldn't bring a bill to the floor without assurances that there are enough votes to pass it.

"We're in striking distance of being able to get it done," Stearns said.

Harris and Steans, who played major roles in bringing civil unions for domestic partners to Illinois, said support for gay marriage has been rapidly gaining speed since President Barack Obama spoke in favor of it earlier this year. Voters in four other states either endorsed gay marriage or repudiated bans on it in the November election.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel calls it a legislative priority. A poll for Southern Illinois University in September found 44 percent of Illinois voters support same-sex marriage, up 10 points from just two years earlier.

"It's very straightforward," Harris said. "We treat all couples with the same respect and dignity in the eyes of the law and we protect the rights of religious institutions to either consecrate or not consecrate marriages within their faith as they see fit. It's very important that government not involve itself in religion on either side of the issue."

However, the Catholic Conference of Illinois opposes the measure and a conservative Christian group's lobbyist says he considers passage now to be a bigger stretch than advocates believe.

Stearns soft-pedaled Thursday when asked if the move to propose legislation signaled that supporters predict victory.

"That's a dangerous game, but that's the goal. We really do want to get a bill to the governor in January ...," she said.

Nine states currently allow gay marriage. Harris and Steans said an Illinois law, which would take effect July 1, would recognize same-sex marriages from other states, and those who have entered civil unions in Illinois could apply for a marriage license with no fee for the first year.

Generally, legalized marriage for same-sex couples give them greater rights regarding taxes, insurance, freedom from privacy restrictions that heterosexual couples have.

Camilla Taylor, marriage project director for Lambda Legal, which is representing 25 couples in a lawsuit opposing the state's gay-marriage ban, said the announcement Thursday "brought hope to thousands of same-sex couples across Illinois."

"Illinois same-sex couples and their children need the freedom to marry now, and it's encouraging that our elected officials agree," Taylor said.

While backed by prominent Democrats, the issue is not strictly a partisan one. Opponents to civil unions in 2010 included some southern Illinois Democrats, while some suburban Republicans supported it.

The Rev. Bob Vanden Bosch, lobbyist for Concerned Christian Americans, predicts a close vote but said passage would surprise him.

"Marriage is not something government has instituted. Marriage is something that's instituted by God," Vanden Bosch said. "People, rather than conforming their lives to the law of God, want to conform the law to their lives."

The Catholic Conference of Illinois, which represents 3.8 million Catholics in the state, has produced a "marriage toolkit" it's distributing to churches and schools outlining the church's position on the issue.

"Nature gives us two sexes for a reason; that's why marriage is unique," conference executive director Robert Gilligan said. "As much as this can be a religious issue, same-sex marriage goes against nature."

The contest for votes in the next three weeks promises to be heated, even as the plan battles for attention among a laundry list of major issues facing lawmakers in the six-day "lame duck" session before a new General Assembly is sworn in. Among the other issues under consideration are plans to fix the pension system, provide driver's licenses to immigrants, legalize medical marijuana and close budget shortfalls.

"We are dedicating our efforts to leaving no stone unturned in helping them" secure passage, said Bernard Cherkasov, chief executive of Equality Illinois. "Our members and supporters by the thousands will be contacting lawmakers."

Harris claims it's been happening already, and some formerly stubborn attitudes among his colleagues have been changed by constituents.

"One of the things that moves them is when they've known the family and they've known three generations of the family and the parents, the grandparents and the kids come in and say, `Why would our state treat our lesbian granddaughter with less respect than our straight grandson, and how can you support that?'" Harris said. "That's very compelling."

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Contact John O'Connor at https://www.twitter.com/apoconnor

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The bill is HB5170.

Online

Illinois General Assembly: http://www.ilga.gov

Catholic Conference: http://www.ilcatholic.org

Lambda Legal: http://www.lambdalegal.org

Equality Illinois: http://www.eqil.org

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