By Bridget Doyle, Manya A. Brachear and Ray Long
6:34 AM CST, January 3, 2013
— If anyone thought gay marriage legislation would pass easily in Illinois, the initial hiccup Wednesday in the state Senate illustrated how hard-fought the issue is likely to be every step of the way.
A bill to allow same-sex marriage did not attract enough support to get a first hearing as Senate Republicans blocked an effort to allow the measure to be considered by a committee. Sponsoring Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, fell two votes short of overcoming what might end up as no more than a minor procedural setback. She vowed to have enough support Thursday to push the gay marriage bill through the full Senate.
The Springfield skirmish unfolded as religious leaders in Chicago ratcheted up philosophical opposition and political pressure and gay marriage supporters continued a planned media blitz complete with a TV sitcom star. And while Illinois Republicans continue to largely oppose same-sex marriage, state GOP Chairman Pat Brady publicly supported the bill.
Gay marriage is but one issue on a crowded agenda of the final days of the outgoing General Assembly. Lawmakers also are looking at pension reform, driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, gambling expansion and gun control before the reset button is hit when the new Legislature is sworn in Wednesday.
Given the political complexities, it will be a tall order for lawmakers to complete a comprehensive pension overhaul by the time the clock runs out. Same goes for chances of passing a major gambling expansion to meet Mayor Rahm Emanuel's desire to have a Chicago casino.
"I'm doubting it," said Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat and sponsor of the gambling measure. "But I've been around long enough to know things can happen in the wee hours."
While gambling expansion might wait yet again, gay marriage supporters still hope to pass a bill during the final days of a lame-duck Legislature. The same-sex marriage push is being backed by a coordinated campaign championed by Fred Eychaner, a Chicago media mogul, and Laura Ricketts, a co-owner of the Chicago Cubs. Gov. Pat Quinn has indicated he'll sign the bill into law if it passes, and Steans said the measure has a chance to be in place by Valentine's Day.
Both sides of the issue grabbed the megaphone Wednesday in an attempt to be heard.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, a star of ABC's "Modern Family," joined Democratic Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon on Wednesday in Chicago to speak in favor of the legislation. The two and other supporters plan to go to the Capitol on Thursday for "Bow Tie Lobby Day," when they'll encourage legislators to wear bow ties in support of the bill.
Ferguson said his role as part of a gay couple on the popular TV show has helped him use "wit and humor" to tackle a serious issue. The nation's forward movement on marriage equality has been encouraging, he said, and Illinois is a chance to continue the momentum. Ferguson's fiance, Justin Mikita, accompanied him to the news conference.
"I'm looking forward to raising a family with Justin and having our kids grow up in an equal America," Ferguson said. "I had a hard time coming out and certainly had struggles with my parents. … If the 12-year-old me had been able to turn on the TV and see a sitting president say he supports marriage equality, it would have made all the difference for me and certainly given me a lot of hope."
Simon sought to counter the argument put forth in a letter from Cardinal Francis George and Catholic bishops Tuesday that same-sex marriage laws create a "legal fiction."
"The state has no power to create something that nature itself tells us is impossible," the church leaders wrote to priests.
Simon argued that adoption is similarly a "legal fiction" that helps citizens form a family unit — and one that she also supports.
In opposition, a coalition of Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, Missouri Synod Lutherans and conservative Anglicans on Wednesday said they wrote to Illinois lawmakers and urged them not to extend marriage to same-sex couples.
The bishops and ministers from about 1,700 Illinois congregations and ministries said the attempt to alter the state's definition of marriage threatens an institution that society counts on as the ideal environment for raising children and teaching men and women to depend on each other.
Gay marriage, the letter said, degrades "the cultural understanding of marriage to an emotional bond between any two adults."
The religious leaders further warned that, while the law exempts religious institutions from having to consecrate same-sex marriages, the proposed legislation does not protect their rights to freely exercise their religious beliefs because they would have to treat same-sex unions as the equivalent of marriage in their business practices. For example, they might be forced to provide health insurance to an employee's same-sex spouse.
The Rev. Timothy Scharr, president of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod's Southern Illinois District, said he's optimistic that lawmakers will pay attention to what he said is a consensus against gay marriage.
"Our real concern is for the family, especially the traditional family of father, mother and children that's been rooted so much in our culture," said Scharr, whose district covers 95 congregations south and southeast of Springfield. "We thought it important to preserve that as much as possible. Many things unforeseen to us could take place. We're fearful."
Also Wednesday, a group of prominent African-American leaders released a letter in support of gay marriage. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr. were among a dozen people who signed it.
"We in Illinois have a chance to help lead the country in the right direction," the letter reads. "The General Assembly should act now and give same-sex couples the freedom to marry. It is the right thing to do."
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