By Meredith Colias
The spring legislative session ended in disappointment for gay rights advocates when the House failed to take a vote on same-sex marriage.
Illinois was poised to become the 13th state to legalize gay marriage, but it appears the measure did not yet have enough strongly committed support to pass. Gov. Pat Quinn was supportive of the legislation and pledged to sign the bill. Chicago Democratic
Rep. Greg Harris, who sponsors Senate Bill 10, choked up as he told those in the galleries he was sorry he could not risk the vote. “I apologize to families who were hoping to wake up tomorrow as full and equal citizens of this state,” he said.
Advocates reacted with emotion and deep disappointment as Harris took to the House floor to announce he did not want to risk the bill’s failure. Spectators in the gallery shouted out for Harris to call the bill for a vote.
Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov said the lack of a vote was “very painful and disgusting.”
Less than two years after Illinois legalized same-sex civil unions, public opinion polling indicates that residents are more supportive of granting full marriage rights, but a majority of House members apparently did not agree. A centerpiece of Equality Illinois’ push to legalize same-sex marriage was highlighting the public’s shifting stance on the issue. President Barack Obama also publicly supported the push when he made a visit to Chicago this week.
“They looked at all of that and waved their hands and walked away,” Cherkasov said.
Sources familiar with negotiations estimated the vote count for months to be just under the 60 required to pass, and Harris was tight-lipped on lobbying efforts for much of that time. Harris said that he was uncertain that he had the backing to pass the bill, and he wanted to wait for a floor vote because some members said they would consider voting “yes” in the fall. Harris would not name names as to who was sitting on the fence. But lobbyists on both sides have been battling over the votes of the members of the House’s black caucus.
With a potential roll call constantly shifting since the bill's passage in the Senate on Valentine's Day, it was uncertain if Harris had enough solid support to push the measure through the House. Even some lawmakers who that said they were open-minded to supporting the legislation would not publicly commit before a floor vote.
Seemingly, Illinois would be able to pass same-sex marriage without a problem because Democrats hold a veto-proof majority in the legislature. But the votes of many members of the caucus could not be guaranteed because of the state's regional and cultural diversity.
Theories on what factors were to blame for the lack of a vote followed Harris’ announcement, but he simply said he wanted to give the bill the time he hoped it needed to pass. Some lawmakers said they wanted more time to talk with their constituents before they would come back to support the bill. “I take my colleagues at their word that they shall,” he said.
Longtime gay rights advocate Rick Garcia, political director of the Civil Rights Agenda, criticized Harris for failing to share his estimated roll calls. He said community and minority groups that had a real life stake in the bill’s passage were not effectively employed, and Harris relied too heavily on House Speaker Michael Madigan to secure the vote. “That is why we lost,” he said. “This is a textbook case of how other states shouldn’t do it,” he said.
Harris’ fellow sponsor, Chicago Democrat Rep. Ken Dunkin, said the 20-member black caucus should not be blamed for the failure for a vote. He said other Democrats in the 71-member majority could have stepped up to support the legislation.
He said he would still be an outspoken advocate for the bill, but he thought it may have been an a mistake for supporters to equate the ability to marry with the long struggle by African-Americans against racism and discrimination. “That may have actually offended African-American legislators, for that to be equated,” he said.
If same-sex marriage is brought back up in the legislature's fall veto session, it is not known how more time will help lobbying efforts. At least one representative, Chicago Democratic Rep. William Davis, who supported civil unions as a compromise in 2010, said he was not sure if he was ready to support full same-sex marriage rights.
The religious aspect of same-sex marriage is also underlying the debate. The bill protects religious institutions if they refuse to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies or lend their halls for receptions.
Aurora Democratic Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia said she thought Harris genuinely wanted to include religious exemptions in the bill. “His intentions are not to impose this on anybody, and I take him for his word,” she said. Only one lawmaker during the Senate debate said its inclusion swayed his decision to vote for the bill.
Chicago Democratic Rep. Deborah Mell spoke of her life with her partner, whom she traveled with to Iowa to marry. She vowed the issue would reemerge. “This vote will be taken,” she said.