Gay Marriage Supporters Give Up on Lame-Duck Session

Illinois moved one step closer to legalizing gay marriage on Thursday. A Senate panel sent the measure to the floor on a strict party-line vote. But some key absences meant there weren’t enough votes to pass it in the full Senate. Brian Mackey has more on where that leaves the push for gay marriage.

Supporters of gay marriage began the day in high spirits, with a “bow tie” rally in the Capitol rotunda. The actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson was on hand. He stars in the ABC comedy Modern Family.

FERGUSON: “I’m half of a gay couple on the show, raising a daughter.”

Ferguson is also half of a gay couple in real life. He and his fiancé, Justin Mikita, plan to get married in New York.

FERGUSON: “We wish we could do it in California. It’s not legal, so we’re taking our business elsewhere. Don’t let that happen to you, Illinois.”

But later in the day, it became clear that could very well happen to Illinois. Backers of gay marriage were at least three votes short of being able to pass the measure. One senator was out of the country. Another’s mother just died. And a third had a family health issue.

CHERKASOV: “The windows are closing a little bit on our ability to get marriage equality done right now.”

Bernard Cherkasov is the director of the gay-rights group Equality Illinois.

CHERKASOV: “We’re not fully giving up yet and we’re always optimistic that miracles happen. But the chances are lower and lower right now.”

It goes without saying gay marriage is a contentious issue. Only one Republican senator voted for civil unions two years ago, and he’s no longer a member. That means supporters would have to look for the bulk of their votes from among Democrats.

But there are several Democrats who oppose gay marriage — Sen. John Sullivan is from Rushville, in west-central Illinois. In keeping with his Downstate district, he’s one of the more conservative members of the Democratic caucus.

SULLIVAN: “The saying around here is, ‘You vote your district,’ and that’s always important. But there’s also, when you get into — on these types of issues — you get into where you believe personally where it needs to come from, so I think that that’s more relevant in some of these bigger social issues.”

It’s just that sort of personal conscience that’s left his fellow Democratic Sen. Mike Jacobs, from the Quad Cities area, undecided.

JACOBS: “You know, as a Catholic, I understand the religious push-back, and people saying marriage is for a man and woman. I understand that. But I also understand that love takes many forms in the new modern society that we live in. And if people love each other, should they not be able to marry? I just think those are really difficult questions.”

Jacobs says he probably won’t know how he’ll vote until the last minute, when he has to decide whether to push the red or green button on his Senate desk.

But there are plenty of people who aren’t wrestling with their conscience over the issue. That includes Bishop Thomas John Paprocki, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield. He testified before a Senate panel.

PAPROCKI: “Neither two men, nor two women, can possibly form a marriage. Our law would be wrong if it said that they could.”

He says approving gay marriage would enshrine three harmful ideas in state law.

PAPROCKI: “One: What essentially makes a marriage is romantic, emotional union. Two: Children do not need both a mother and a father. Three: The main purpose of marriage is adult satisfactions unrelated to the procreation of children.”

SANTOS and VOLPE: “We’re both Catholic. We raise our children Catholic. And our parents are here, who are Catholic. But we’re not asking the church to decide this. It’s a civil right.”

That’s Mercedes Santos and Theresa Volpe, who were among dozens of supporters of gay marriage who waited most of the day for a hearing on the subject. They say they raise their children with positive values from their Catholic church in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.

SANTOS: “It’s very unfortunate that other people feel — have negative feelings for our family. Because really all we are is we are a loving family — a loving couple. And we have great children. Our children, they’re here, they’re so patient. They know they’re here to support their moms and their family, and you know, what more can we ask for? And we want Illinois to know that.”

At the end of the day, the gay marriage legislation passed out of the committee on a strictly party-line vote. But because of those missing members, the full Senate left town without taking it up. And with only a few days remaining until the current session of the General Assembly adjourns for good, the gay-rights group Equality Illinois declared a temporary victory and said it’d be back in the spring.

Both the House and Senate will have more Democrats sworn in by then, and gay rights activists say that works in their favor. They’re confident gay marriage will eventually be the law in Illinois. They say it’s not a question of “if,” but “when.”

— Brian Mackey

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