SPRINGFIELD --- A showdown vote on legalizing gay marriage in Illinois never materialized Friday as lawmakers adjourned, dashing the high hopes of supporters who believed that after years of disappointment they were finally on the verge of making history.
For weeks, Illinois appeared to be poised to become the 13th state to approve same-sex marriage. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn promised to sign the bill. Democrats held veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate. President Barack Obama called for its passage during a Thursday night fundraiser in his home city and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was a major backer as well.
But in the face of strong opposition from Catholic and conservative African-American church groups, supporters failed to muster enough votes in the Illinois House.
As the House prepared to adjourn, sponsoring Rep. Greg Harris rose on the floor and gave a tearful speech to announce he would not call the bill. He was greeted by angry shouts by dozens of supporters who had gathered in the House gallery for what they thought hours before would be a history-making event.
Harris said several colleagues asked to have the summer to weigh the issue in their district, with the promise they would return in November prepared to support same-sex marriage.
“Until that day, I apologize to the families who were hoping to wake up tomorrow as full and equal citizens of this state,” Harris said.
The high-profile failure of gay marriage came in a session in which ruling Democrats also failed to approve public employee pension reforms and a Chicago casino.
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, gave a concession speech before adjourning Friday night, while noting lawmakers will be back for a fall session.
“Obviously, this is a session where we have not enjoyed a great deal of success,” said Madigan, who doubles as Illinois Democratic Party chairman. “That’s very obvious. However, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to walk away from our responsibilities….
“I don’t think we should take a lack of success today as a reason to give up,” Madigan said.
Twelve other states have approved gay marriage. In recent weeks, the governor expressed frustration as momentum lagged in Illinois while other states approved gay marriage. Rhode Island, Delaware and Minnesota put in place laws that take effect later this summer.
The Illinois Senate passed the measure on a 34-21 vote on Valentine’s Day. Quinn had expressed confidence the House would follow suit this month. On Friday, Quinn learned he wouldn't be doing that any time soon.
“I am disappointed that the House of Representatives in the Land of Lincoln did not pass a historic measure that would have guaranteed equal rights and benefits for all citizens," Quinn said in a statement. “This is not over. The fight goes on. We will keep on fighting until marriage equality is law in Illinois."
There was plenty of blame to go around after the measure stalled. Harris said Quinn's repeated insistence that the measure had enough votes to pass peeled away support in recent weeks, while some gay advocates contended Harris didn't do enough to reach out to Hispanic and African American lawmakers to build support.
Emanuel released a statement supporting Harris.
"His eloquent call for action and recognition of same sex couples must be and will be heard. With his moving words this evening, Rep. Harris made it clear that it is time for us to move forward as a city and state, making marriage a right for all," the mayor said in a statement. "To honor our city and state’s proud place in the struggle for equality, and most importantly, to honor the life-long commitments of all residents to whomever they love, we must heed Rep. Harris’ words."
The push for gay marriage came just two years after Illinois legalized civil unions for same-sex couples and reflects shifting attitudes in favor of same-sex marriage.
Under the latest measure, the definition of marriage would be changed in state law from an act between a man and a woman to one between two people. Civil unions could be converted to marriages within a year of the law going onto the books.
The legislation would not require religious organizations to perform a marriage of gay couples, and church officials would not be forced to allow their facilities to be used by gay couples seeking to marry.
While advocates have brought forth a lengthy line-up of religious leaders who have endorsed gay marriage, Catholics and conservative African American church groups have provided fierce opposition. They argue same-sex marriage violates the basic tenets of the Bible, which call for marriage to be only between a man and a woman.
Advocates argue a prohibition on gay marriage goes against American values of equality and fairness.
They gathered ahead of the debate Thursday afternoon to demand a vote, detailing hurdles same-sex couples face without full legal recognition of their relationship.
Mercedes Santos and Theresa Volpe of West Rogers Park detailed how hospital officials would not let them both in the room when their now 5-year-old son was hospitalized for kidney failure because “there couldn’t be two moms.”
“My son was dying and the last thing I needed to do was sit and try to explain to them who I was," Volpe said. "We feel very strongly about the message that's being sent today to our family. ... It's about equality and our family is just as equal as any other family that is allowed to have marriage.”