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Activists Trying to Build Support Now: Same-Sex Marriage Law to be Debated in Illinois this Spring?

While a new same-sex marriage law waits to be heard in the state Senate, Chicagoans and local activists remain divided on the issue of gay marriage.

The proposed legislation would allow gay couples to wed in Illinois. As the new bill waits in the legislature until next year’s session, opinions vary widely on the issue in the Chicago area.

“I don’t believe in it,” said Shirley Anderson, 51, of Woodlawn. “I don’t believe in it from a religious standpoint, but I don’t judge – that’s God’s job.”

“I think it’d be a good thing,” said Paula Botha, 25, of La Grange. “I don’t see why it should be any different for same-sex or opposite sex [couples].”

State Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) introduced the Equal Marriage Act in the Senate on Oct. 1. Steans said the bill would be heard by Senate committees as soon as February or March.

“I’ve had a strong response and support in the Chicago area,” said Steans. “I will continue to work with like-minded advocates to advance the bill and am looking for as much help as possible in every area of the state.”

The bill is the first of its kind in the Illinois Senate, but succeeds a civil unions bill introduced in the Illinois House of Representatives in February by Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago). Harris also introduced an equal marriage bill, but it failed to move beyond the committee.

Supporters of the new bill hope to reignite the debate around same-sex marriage in Illinois now that the civil unions bill has stalled, after squeaking through the House Youth and Family Committee on a 4-3 vote in May.

While public opinion varies, activists are charged up on both sides of the issue.

“We’re trying to educate people about the harm that this bill will do to religious freedoms and First Amendment rights,” said David Smith, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, a religious organization that opposes same-sex marriage.

“There is a reason why the state recognizes natural marriage. It encourages it because it benefits the state,” Smith said. “It provides the ideal environment to raise children. What does gay marriage do? Nothing. It doesn’t benefit the state one iota.”

As religious institutions lobby against these bills, activists in the gay community are fighting for more than just marriage.

“I am for the equal marriage bill, but people need to remember that even with marriage equality in the state of Illinois – if it were to pass – it still means that most benefits of marriage are not accruable to gays and lesbians,” said Sherry Wolf, independent journalist, activist and author of “Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation.”

“Most rights come from the federal government, not the states. So it is not enough,” she said.

Wolf was a committee member for the National Equality March in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11. She said the march was a great start for activism.

“It was just the beginning. And what we need is ongoing speak-outs, rallies, speeches, film showings, sit-ins – all sorts of activism and public expression of dissent,” Wolf said.

“I have a positive outlook no matter what,” said Sidney Stokes, student and president of Common Ground, the LGBT group at Columbia College Chicago.

“If it doesn’t happen right now I know that Illinois, like the country, will one day have it,” he said. “I think the most important thing is to send a message to the legislature that Illinois wants this.”

Smith said the bill would not become law.

“It’s going nowhere fast,” he said. “It does not have the traction, despite the fact that the Democrats have a super-majority in the House and a majority in the Senate.”

For the last six years, the Illinois Family Institute has unsuccessfully lobbied to amend the state constitution to permanently ban same-sex marriage.

“Our amendment is not going anywhere,” Smith said, acknowledging House
Speaker Michael Madigan’s (D-Chicago)
refusal to move the legislation to the committee. “It’s status-quo as of now,” he said.

Same-sex marriage rights were repealed in the state of Maine this month by a ballot measure called Proposition 1. Gay couples may marry in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont.

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