January 3, 2013
Illinois has been cautious in the march to grant gays and lesbians protection for their relationships. California was the first state to authorize same-sex domestic partnerships, in 1999. Vermont was the first to sanction civil unions, in 2000. And Massachusetts was the first to approve same-sex marriage, in 2004. Illinois waited until 2011 before approving civil unions.
But the General Assembly may be ready to take this cause to the next level. The Illinois Senate may vote soon on a bill letting same-sex couples enter matrimony on the same terms as their opposite-sex counterparts. Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, the chief House sponsor, thinks it has a good chance of success. Gov. Pat Quinn has indicated he will sign the measure if it reaches his desk.
Let's hope he gets the opportunity. Marriage equality is a once-radical concept that has rapidly gone mainstream. In 1996, according to Gallup, 27 percent of Americans endorsed legal recognition of same-sex marriage; today, 53 percent support it.
Nine states and the District of Columbia permit it. In November, voters in three states approved it by popular referendum — the first such victories after 32 defeats.
President Barack Obama, who was once opposed, is now in favor, and he has urged the General Assembly to act. So has Mayor Rahm Emanuel. On Wednesday, the bill got a surprising endorsement from Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady.
It's time for the Legislature to authorize same-sex marriage as a matter of policy that would advance social goals valuable not only to gays and lesbians but to everyone in the state.
The most crucial gain is to afford protections to the young. Many gay couples have biological children by one partner or the other, and many others are adoptive parents. With gays as well as straights, marriage serves to promote commitment, stability and financial solvency. If same-sex couples can make the legal commitment and choose to assume all the obligations that come with matrimony, they will be more likely to stay together.
That's good for kids. It's also good for communities, since it minimizes the unwanted side effects of broken homes.
Authorizing same-sex marriage also works to break down age-old prejudice, discrimination and even violence against gays. Their growing acceptance as full members of society has been one of the most dramatic civil rights stories of our time — but it still has some distance to go.
Much of the opposition stems from religious concerns, such as those cited by Cardinal Francis George, who has urged a "no" vote. We fully understand and respect the cardinal's view that same-sex marriage violates natural law. But nothing in this bill affects the church's authority to define what is right for Catholics. It recognizes the difference between religious rites and civil institutions.
The Catholic church, after all, bars remarriage by divorcees, but Illinois grants marriage licenses to them. Allowing same-sex marriage does not limit the freedom of religious believers to reject it; it merely allows those who differ to practice what they believe.
The bill stipulates that "any religious denomination" will remain "free to choose which marriages it will solemnize." About 250 Illinois clergy recently signed a statement affirming, "There can be no justification for the law treating people differently on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity."
That's exactly right. The General Assembly should waste no time making marriage equality a reality.