President Obama joins push to pass Illinois same-sex marriage bill

Photo: Tony Merevick.

Photo: Tony Merevick.

Just days before lawmakers are widely expected to vote on a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in Illinois, the Chicago Sun-Times reported Saturday President Barack Obama is urging legislators in his home state to support the bill.

“While the president does not weigh in on every measure being considered by state legislatures, he believes in treating everyone fairly and equally, with dignity and respect,” Shin Inouye, a White House spokesman, told the Chicago Sun-Times on Saturday.

Obama joins several high-ranking Illinois officials such as Governor Pat Quinn, Lt. Governor Sheila Simon and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in supporting the bill, formally titled the “Illinois Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act.”

“As he has said, his personal view is that it’s wrong to prevent couples who are in loving, committed relationships, and want to marry, from doing so. Were the President still in the Illinois State Legislature, he would support this measure that would treat all Illinois couples equally,” Inouye told to the Sun-Times.

On Dec. 13, the bill’s chief sponsors, Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) and Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago) said they were in “striking distance” of securing enough support among their fellow legislators to bring the bill up for vote during the lame duck session of the Illinois General Assembly, beginning Jan. 2.

The president’s coming out in support for the legislation is hugely important, Harris said.

“It’s wonderful. The president speaks for the majority of Americans and the majority of people in Illinois who thought about this issue and who decided that treating all families with dignity and respect is the right thing to do,” Harris said.

“The fact that the president explained that he evolved — when people find out it’s about government treating people fairly and people loving each other — people change their minds,” Harris added.

LGBT rights activists working with legislators to pass the bill, including Rick Garcia, a longtime local gay rights activist and policy director at The Civil Rights Agenda, applauded Obama’s push. Garcia said he’s not at all surprised by the president’s support because he quietly worked to support the successful passage of the state’s civil unions bill in late 2010.

“I am thrilled,” Garcia said. “I think the president has done an enormous amount for the gay community and has done an enormous amount equal marriage rights in this country.”

Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Chicago-based LGBT rights organization Equality Illinois, also praised the president.

“President Obama made it clear today that Illinois should join the ever-building national consensus for marriage equality,” Cherkasov said in a media release. “While we knew of his support for the freedom to marry, the fact that the president wants his home state to achieve it through legislative action is a strong and significant statement to our General Assembly that the time is now to act.”

In May, Obama said during an ABC News interview that his position on issue has evolved into full support, becoming the first sitting president to publicly endorse gay marriage.

“At a certain point I just concluded that for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” Obama said in the interview.

Voting in favor of the bill will put legislators on the right side of history and will not — as Obama demonstrated this summer — result in political repercussions, Cherkasov said.

Garcia points to Obama’s victory in his bid for re-election Nov. 6 as evidence of American’s willingness to allow gay and lesbian nuptials.

“Let’s look at the numbers the president got and his margin of victory,” Garcia said. “It’s very easy for us to talk about how our community — how LGBT people and their families and their allies gave him a second term.”

The bill needs at least 30 votes in the Senate and at least 60 votes in the House to reach the desk of Gov. Quinn, who said he would sign the bill into law and also asked lawmakers to pass it.

Activists both in favor and opposed to the legislation predict the bill will likely find sufficient support in the Senate, but may find less support in the House — even though both chambers are controlled by Democratic majorities. Some Democratic representatives may fear re-election prospects in more conservative downstate Illinois districts, according to Garcia, but that the president’s words will help sway them.

Earlier this month, Steans told Chicago Phoenix the bill will likely begin in the Senate and, if passed, make its way to the House before a new class of legislators take over Jan. 9.

“I really think that there’s a national sea change that’s happening on this and I think it’s helped [other legislators] evolve on this issue,” Steans said.

In late 2010, Illinois lawmakers approved a civil unions bill that went into affect last summer, but both anti-gay activists and pro-gay activists agree that marriage means more than a civil union.

Nine states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriages. Three states — Washington, Maine and Maryland — approved same-sex marriage ballot measures in the November elections.

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