SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Historic votes Tuesday in the Illinois Legislature positioned that state to become the largest in the heartland to legalize gay marriage, following months of arduous lobbying efforts by both sides in President Barack Obama’s home state.
Under the measure, which the state House approved 61-54 before sending it on to the Senate for technical changes, gay weddings could be held in Illinois starting in June. The bill heads next to Gov. Pat Quinn, who has pledged to sign it but didn’t immediately indicate when.
Fourteen states plus Washington, D.C., allow same-sex marriage. Most recently, New Jersey, Minnesota and Rhode Island have legalized it.
The road to the Illinois vote was long with stalled attempts earlier this year, something that frustrated activists in the state where Democrats lead the House, Senate and governor’s office. Chicago Democratic Rep. Greg Harris, who is the sponsor of the bill, decided not to bring the bill for a vote in May because he said he simply didn’t have the support.
Then the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to strike down a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, something he said resonated with lawmakers. Backers also launched a furious campaign, hiring a lobbyist from the state’s largest union, the former head of the Illinois Republican Party and field organizers spanning the state.
“To treat all our citizens equally in the eyes of the law we must change this,” Harris said on the floor. “Families have been kept apart.”
Debate lasted more than two hours, and the final roll call was met with hearty cheers and applause. Supporters’ speeches echoed themes of equality and civil rights with mentions of Obama, Martin Luther King Jr. and Matthew Shepard, a gay college student whose 1998 death sparked numerous hate crime bills.
Polls show support for gay marriage has surged since 1996, when Gallup found that 27 percent of Americans backed it. Now Gallup finds the majority support giving gay and lesbian couples the right to marry.
“Today the Illinois House put our state on the right side of history,” Quinn said in a statement. “Illinois is a place that embraces all people and today, we are an example for the nation.”
Although Illinois once appeared poised to become the first Midwestern state to approve gay marriage in the Legislature, Minnesota did it sooner and started holding same-sex weddings over the summer. Iowa allows gay marriages too because of a court ruling, not a legislative vote.
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