By Joanne von Alroth
CHICAGO, Dec 28 (Reuters) - Illinois could become the next U.S. state to legalize gay marriage with a bill set to be introduced in the state Senate in early January, even before a new legislature takes office with a super-majority of Democrats in both houses.
Buoyed by November election referendum victories for gay marriage in Maryland, Maine and Washington state, gay marriage supporters in Illinois said they plan to press for approval in the Democrat-majority legislature. If it passes, that would make Illinois the tenth state to approve same sex nuptials.
Approval in President Barack Obama's home state would be a symbolic victory for gay rights activists after the president endorsed same sex marriage in May.
Chicago state Senator Heather Steans will introduce a gay marriage proposal next week, said Rikeesha Phelon, spokeswoman for Illinois Senate President John Cullerton.
"The Senate president and Senator Steans are confident they have the votes to pass a same-sex marriage bill," Phelon said.
Even if Illinois lawmakers fail to approve gay marriage before a newly-elected legislature takes office on Jan. 10, there is a reasonable chance of passage later in the year because Democrats gained seats in the November election and will have super-majorities in both chambers.
No Midwest state has approved gay marriage by a vote of its legislature. Iowa's Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that same sex marriage was legal, a decision some opponents have been trying to overturn ever since.
In June, 2011, Illinois legalized civil unions, which grant some of the rights of marriage to same sex partners. But gay rights activists said that did not go far enough.
All prominent Democrats in Illinois have endorsed gay marriage, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn.
One issue to be resolved is whether Illinois should allow religious groups the option of declining to perform same-sex marriages. New York granted such an exception in 2011 in order to secure the legislative votes to legalize gay marriage there.
A bill introduced in the Illinois House, where support is not as strong as in the state Senate, offers such a religious exemption. Democrats hold a majority in the House too.
Last week, at least 260 Illinois faith leaders including representatives of several Jewish congregations and Protestant denominations, published a letter supporting same sex marriage.
"There can be no justification for the law treating people differently on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity," the letter says.
But the Catholic Conference of Illinois, which represents Catholic bishops in the state, said on its website that marriage should be reserved for a man and a woman.
In addition to the three states which voted in November to legalize gay marriage, six others allow it - Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, Connecticut and New Hampshire, plus the District of Columbia. (Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Claudia Parsons)
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New York lawmakers <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/24/new-york-gay-marriage_n_907901.html" target="_blank">legalized same-sex marriage on July 24, 2011</a>, making it the largest state at the time to pass such legislation.
Voters in Maryland <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/07/gay-marriage-victory_n_2085900.html" target="_blank">approved marriage equality in the November 2012 election</a>. Initially, the gay marriage bill was signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) on March 1, 2012, but opponents gathered enough signatures to force the issue back onto the ballot. With the passing of marriage equality, same-sex marriage <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/31/maryland-gay-marriage_n_2389044.html" target="_blank">ceremonies began on Jan. 1, 2013</a>.
Connecticut's Supreme Court <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/10/10/connecticut-gay-marriage_n_133605.html" target="_blank">ruled that same-sex couples had the right to marry on Nov. 12, 2008</a>, making it the third state in the nation to do achieve marriage equality.
Iowa's Supreme Court <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/03/iowa-gay-marriage-ban-rul_n_182782.html" target="_blank">ruled the state's gay marriage ban unconstitutional</a> on April 3, 2009.
Maine <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/07/gay-marriage-victory_n_2085900.html" target="_blank">made history in the November 2012 election</a> when it became the first state to pass marriage equality on the ballot. Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said, "Voters in Maine came to the common-sense conclusion that all people deserve the ability to make loving, lifelong commitments through marriage." Just three years ago, a popular vote overturned legislation that would have legalized same-sex marriage in the state.
Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to <a href="http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-legal-same-sex-marriage-performed-in-massachusetts" target="_blank"> legalize same-sex marriage on May 17, 2004</a>. The state's Supreme Court initially found the ban on gay marriage unconstitutional on Nov. 18, 2003.
Same-sex couples were able to <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-201_162-6042937.html" target="_blank">begin seeking marriage licenses</a> on Jan. 1, 2010.
Vermont, which invented civil unions, became <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/07/vermont-legalizes-gay-mar_n_184034.html" target="_blank">the first state to legalize gay marriage through a legislature's vote</a> -- overriding the governor's veto. Same-sex couples were able to begin marrying on Sept, 1, 2009.
Gay couples were able to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/12/01/gay-marriage-dc-council-p_n_375435.html" target="_blank">begin marrying in the nation's capital</a> on March 9, 2010.
The state initially began conducting gay marriages on June 16, 2008. On November 5, 2008, however, California <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/26/proposition-8-timeline_n_3503512.html" target="_blank">voters passed Proposition 8</a>, which amended the state's constitution to declare marriage as only between a man and a woman. On June 26, 2013, by a 5-4 vote, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/26/hollingsworth-v-perry-ruling_n_3438269.html" target="_blank">the Supreme Court justices held in Hollingsworth v. Perry</a> that the traditional marriage activists who put Proposition 8 on California ballots in 2008 did not have the constitutional authority, or standing, to defend the law in federal courts after the state refused to appeal its loss at trial, opening the door for marriages to resume in the state.
On February 13, 2012, Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/13/washington-gay-marriage-signed-chris-gregoire_n_1273887.html" target="_blank">signed a law allowing same-sex marriage ceremonies</a> to begin on June 7, 2012. The process was delayed by gay marriage opponents who gathered enough signatures to put the issue up to a state vote in November 2012. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/09/washington-gay-marriage-law_n_2266574.html" target="_blank">Gay marriage passed on November 7, 2012.</a> The official determination for Washington did not come until one day after the election because of the state's mail-in voting system.
Gay marriage came to Rhode Island when Governor Lincoln Chafee <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/01/gay-marriage-minnesota-rhode-island_n_3686034.html" target="_blank">signed the marriage equality bill</a> into law on May 2, 2013.
Delaware obtained gay marriage when <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/07/delaware-gay-marriage-law-_n_3232771.html" target="_blank">Governor Jack Markell signed the marriage equality bill it into law</a> on May 7, 2013.
Minnesota same-sex couples achieved marriage equality when Gov. Mark Dayton signed the legislation into law <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/14/minnesota-gay-marriage-legal-_n_3275484.html" target="_blank">on May 14, 2013</a>.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/20/cory-booker-same-sex-marriage_n_4134116.html?&ir=Gay%20Voices&utm_hp_ref=gay-voices" target="_blank">began marrying same-sex couples</a> at City Hall at 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 21, 2013.
Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed same-sex marriage into law on Nov. 13, 2013, making it the 15th state to pass such legislation.
Illinois became the 16th state to legalize gay marriage, with the House <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/05/illinois-gay-marriage_n_4220793.html" target="_blank">having passed the bill on Nov. 5</a>. and Gov. Pat Quinn signing the legislation on Nov. 20.
On Dec. 19, the New Mexico Supreme Court <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/19/new-mexico-gay-marriage_n_4474507.html?ir=Gay%20Voices" target="_blank">unanimously ruled</a> that same-sex marriage rights are protected under the Constitution.