Illinois General Assembly introduces marriage equality bill

Sammy Caiola

In the wake of Washington’s legalization of same-sex marriage Monday and a California court overturning Proposition 8 last week, the Illinois General Assembly is taking steps that could lead to similar action.

The Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, which would legalize same-sex marriage in Illinois, was introduced Wednesday in the Illinois House of Representatives.

Illinois Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), a co-sponsor of the bill, has been working toward marriage equality since he assumed office in 2006.

“I believe it’s the right thing to do – to treat all couples fairly across the state,” Harris told the daily on Tuesday. “It’s an idea whose time has come.”

Civil unions have been legal in Illinois since June 1, when the Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act went into effect. The marriage-like unions were intended to protect same-sex couples but left out some important rights, said Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, a Chicago nonprofit working toward LGBT equality in the state. For example, partners in a civil union cannot pick up each others’ prescriptions from the pharmacy, cannot access each others’ death certificates and are sometimes denied employee benefits, Cherkasov said.

Even if the act legalizing marriage passes in Illinois, same-sex couples would still be denied more than 1,100 federal marriage rights, Cherkasov said. He added he believes same-sex marriage will definitely be legalized in Illinois, and when it does it may produce a ripple effect.

“I have no doubt that we will have marriage equality in Illinois,” he said. “It probably won’t happen tomorrow, but it will happen eventually. It will create additional momentum for nearby states.”

Harris said support for same-sex marriage has seen significant growth nationally over the past five years, increasing by 4 or 5 percentage points from year to year. He said the majority of Americans in all regions of the country now support marriage equality, which may be due to a younger and more accepting voting generation.

“Clearly this is an issue where as time passes, voters by a vast majority are going to believe in it,” he said.

Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl showed her support for same-sex marriage by signing on in January to the Mayors for the Freedom to Marry campaign.

“What the mayors are hoping is that we’ll increase the number of mayors who sign on and that will increase the pressure on the legislatures to make marriage legal for everyone,” Tisdahl told the daily in an article published Jan. 23.

Jeff Geiger, a Weinberg senior and co-president of Rainbow Alliance, said he was surprised to see state legislation on marriage equality introduced so soon, considering the recent legalization of civil unions. He said he believes the Illinois legislature is more conservative than the populace, and it might take another election cycle for the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act to pass.

“I’m from a conservative part of Illinois, so my personal experience was never one of raging acceptance,” he said. “Illinois is a really diverse state. But my impression has always been in the middle of the road on this kind of thing.”

As Illinois sees same-sex marriage passing and succeeding elsewhere, it will help foster support for the state bill, said Lane Fenrich, a Northwestern history professor and Weinberg’s assistant dean of freshmen. Fenrich also teaches classes in the gender studies department.

“Other states have done it, and they’re not falling into the ocean,” Fenrich said. “We’re finally coming to a moment where a majority of people have decided that gay and lesbian people are people, and they deserve to be respected and protected.”

The bill is sponsored by seven state representatives, including state Rep. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston). The bill was referred to the House rules committee Feb. 8.

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