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Illinois Senate Votes to Legalize Gay Marriage

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Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans, left, presides over the civil union of James Darby, center, and Patrick Bova during ceremonies in Chicago's Millennium Park Thursday, June 2, 2011 in Chicago.

Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans, left, presides over the civil union of James Darby, center, and Patrick Bova during ceremonies in Chicago's Millennium Park Thursday, June 2, 2011 in Chicago. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Same-sex couples with an eye on marriage got a Valentine from the Illinois Senate on Thursday. Thirty-three Democrats and one Republican voted to legalize gay marriage. 

The supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage couldn't even agree on what they were debating. Supporters say it's a civil rights battle — guaranteeing equal treatment under the law regardless of sexual orientation. But opponents see a threat to religion, and a definition of marriage that's been around for millennia.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) called it "a vote for the history books."

“It is time Illinois get rid of its second class status for a segment of our residents, and allow everyone an opportunity to reap the emotional, social and economic benefits and obligations of marriage,” Steans said.

"It is a strike at the heart of a fundamental societal institution," said Sen. Bill Haine (D- Alton), one of a handful of Democrats who opposes gay marriage.

Haine was the only one to speak against it in debate. He quoted from several religious tracts, including one that says there are other limits on who can and cannot get married.

"Polygamists, bigamists, those who wish to marry brothers, sisters, et cetera," Haine said.

Haine went on to directly challenge the idea that, when it comes to marriage, gay rights are civil rights.

"It is not analogous to the civil rights struggle, which was waged by people of faith," he added.

The question of faith came up a lot among Republicans. Roman Catholic bishops, in particular, have been vocal about their opposition to same-sex marriage. 

Sen. Kyle McCarter (R-Lebanon) pointed to the example of Catholic Charities. The group lost its state contract to manage adoptions when it refused to place kids with couples who had gotten civil unions.

"This is a discriminatory bill," McCarter said. "People have the right to live as they choose. They don't have the right to redefine marriage for all of us."

McCarter said businesses, faced with the prospect of having to serve gay couples lest they be accused of discrimination, might simply close up shop.

"Bed and breakfasts, florists, all those that are wedding-related will be affected," he said. "They will choose to — most of them — dissolve their businesses. That's what's happened in other states."

That argument drew audible groans of disbelief from Democrats.

"I don't get out to the movies very often, and I just watched 'Lincoln.' And for the love of God, I feel like I'm sitting in 1865," said Sen. Willie Delgado (D-Chicago). "Gay and lesbian communities — LGBTQ — continue to be second class under our current laws."

Delgado was not the only Democrat to frame same-sex marriage as a matter of civil rights. Sen. Kwame Raoul is from Chicago. He is also black.

"You know, there was a time when — for counting purposes — I would only be considered 3/5 of a man," Raoul said. "But we've knocked down that wall."

Raoul, like other Democrats, also says the arguments about religious freedom are a red herring.

"We can continue to worship as we personally wish to worship," Raoul added. "And the heads of our respective religious institutions will be allowed to dictate what goes on under the roof of their house of worship."

In the end, that argument prevailed. The final vote was 34 to 21. The vote was mostly along partisan lines, though one Republican did back same-sex marriage.

Sen. Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington) said last minute changes to the legislation satisfied his concerns about religious freedom.

“I was extremely involved in the negotiations of the language that carves out exceptions for religious beliefs, and I am very comfortable with that language and the protections that it provides to those views,” Barickman said.

But Mattoon Republican Dale Righter says regardless of how legislators feel on the gay marriage issue, despite some changes in the bill, it still fell short in protecting religious institutions.  He says the measure will now open up facilities related to a church, like parochial schools, to litigation from those wanting to perform same-sex marriage celebrations contrary to that church’s faith.

"The first amendment not only protects our right to go to church and worship as we choose within the walls of the church, it also protects a religion’s ability to go out and minister to others," Righter said.  "Because in the end, that’s what all religions do.  They go out in order to minister to other souls and try to convert them.  If the first amendment doesn’t protect that, then the first amendment is far less protective than we all hoped it would be.”

While Barickman was the only Republican to vote for same sex marriage, not all Democrats backed it.

Three voted no, all from Downstate: Bill Haine from Alton, John Sullivan from Rushville, and Gary Forby from Benton.

Two more Democrats did not take a stand and voted present: freshmen Napoleon Harris of Flossmoor and Patricia Van Pelt of Chicago.

The same-sex marriage legislation still has to pass the Illinois House, where Democratic Rep. Greg Harris, from Chicago, said he is optimistic about its chances.

"This an idea whose time has come," Harris said. "You've got business leaders, you have faith leaders, you have political leaders of both parties who are supporting this. I think we are about to make a very positive change for tens of thousands of Illinois families."

Harris said he has no idea when it might come up for a vote in the Illinois House. If it does get through that chamber, Gov. Pat Quinn has already said he will sign it into law.

Illinois would become the 10th state to recognize same-sex marriage.