In 1996, Illinois and 14 other states approved "Defense of Marriage of Act" laws to outlaw same-sex marriages and to refuse to recognize such marriages adopted in other states, but Illinois yesterday partially undid that injustice.
State Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago) brought civil unions legislation, Senate Bill 1716, to the Illinois House floor for a vote, winning approval 61-52-2.
Harris had pledged to call the measure once he had the minimum 60 votes and a few spares in hand to approve the legislation. On his Facebook page yesterday, Harris wrote, "Today is the day."
The successful House vote came despite intense opposition from Chicago's Cardinal Francis George. George recently renewed his assault on the Harris plan and goofy remarks by a veteran GOP lawmaker.
"Everyone has a right to marry, but no one has the right to change the nature of marriage. Marriage is what it is and always has been, no matter what a legislature decides to do," said George in a November 22 statement issued by the conference on behalf of the cardinal and the other bishops of Illinois.
Besides misunderstanding current Illinois law regarding marriage, which prohibits gay and lesbian couples from marrying, George also obliquely raised the specter of withdrawing the church's commitment to providing social services to the poor if the civil unions bill becomes law.
"The public understanding of marriage will be negatively affected by the passage of a bill that ignores the natural fact that sexual complementarity is at the core of marriage," said the cardinal. "Moreover, the impact of this legislation on the church's social service ministries remains an important and thus far unanswered concern."
"The Cardinal's statement clearly raises the question regarding the church commitment to the needy," said Harris.
The Catholic Conference's executive director, Robert Gilligan, said there is currently no plan to end the church's social services contracts with the State of Illinois, but left open the door to that possibility.
"As far as I know we have not said that we would end provision of social services if the bill passes. We intend to continue services unless the law makes it too difficult to do so, and if the experience in other areas comes through here, we are concerned that it is only a matter of time," said Gilligan.
In House floor debate, State Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Greenville), an opponent, said, "Rome fell because of open homosexuality," in one of the more bizarre arguments made against the civil unions bill.
State Rep. Careen Gordon (D-Morris) more than offset Stephens by arguing, "This is a constitutional issue. The constitution must work for everyone--otherwise it works for no one."
And State Rep. Bill Black (R-Danville), invoking U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen's vote for 1964 Civil Rights bill when he had earlier opposed such legislation, said: "I would rather be right than consistent. I intend to vote aye"
Despite George's intensive campaign against the bill, a bevy of Catholic politicians have been supporting the civil unions bill, actively working publicly and privately to win the bill's passage.
Governor Pat Quinn, Mayor Richard Daley, Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and most recently Chicago mayor hopeful Gery Chico have thrown their weight and moral authority behind the plan.
In fact, George ratcheted up his public rhetoric after Madigan not only predicted the bill's passage, but also personally endorsed its merits, saying, "It's an appropriate thing to do."
In a last minute attempt to derail the civil unions bill, the Catholic Conference yesterday offered to negotiate a compromise, but that offer was turned aside by civil union proponents.
The view of a compromise by a civil unions supporter was neatly summed up by a comment on Harris's Facebook page by Rebecca Kell.
"Isn't a civil unions bill already a compromise? Isn't separate but not equal far enough from equality to keep the Cardinal happy?" wrote Kell.
Kell captures key a point that eludes George's grasp.
A civil union would not be a marriage under Illinois law. But it would be a step forward to reversing ignominy of 1996 that banned marriage equality for all Illinois taxpayers.
Civil unions are a compromise. For now.
Meanwhile, Harris took a single step forward to reverse a bit of sordid Illinois history.
The measure now heads to the Illinois State Senate where passage is expected and then on to Quinn's desk.
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