SPRINGFIELD-The two leading legislative backers of a measure to legalize gay marriage in Illinois said Thursday they intend to seek a vote in the upcoming January lame-duck session but stopped short of saying if they had the votes to pass it.
"We think we're really within striking distance here of being able to get it done," state Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) told reporters during a mid-day conference call with state Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago).
Gov. Pat Quinn has encouraged the General Assembly to send him a bill in January that would allow gay marriage and that he would sign it. Mayor Rahm Emanuel also supports the push.
Nine states currently recognize gay marriage.
Illinoisans have moved significantly in favor of gay marriage during the past two years, with more than four in 10 registered voters supporting it in a poll released earlier this fall.
The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute found that 43.6 percent of registered voters support giving gays and lesbians the legal right to marry in Illinois. Another poll, from Public Policy Polling, showed that number closer to 47 percent.
Two years ago, only 33.6 percent surveyed by the institute favored granting that right.
"The American public and people in Illinois have had a sea change on public opinion on this in the last couple of years," said Harris, who is openly gay. "It's absolutely the right thing to do."
Both attributed the shift, in part, to President Barack Obama's conversion to a supporter of gay marriage.
In November, Maine, Maryland and Washington state approved gay marriage at the ballot box, becoming the seventh, eighth and ninth states to recognize same-sex marriages. The District of Columbia also permits them.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court waded into the issue, agreeing to consider challenges to a California ban on same-sex marriages and to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which bars same-sex couples from receiving certain federal benefits attainable by those in heterosexual marriages.
Neither Harris nor Steans would discuss how close they are to attaining the 60 votes necessary to pass Illinois' gay-marriage initiative in the House and the 30 needs to win Senate approval.
But both predicted there would be some Republican support.
Two years ago, when lawmakers legalized civil unions, only one Senate Republican - current Treasurer Dan Rutherford - broke ranks with his caucus to vote in favor of that.
"In civil unions, we had just one who supported it. That senator is no longer in the Senate. I think we'll have at least one, maybe more," said Steans, who characterized a civil union as "second-class status" when compared to the rights afforded through marriage.
The initiative faces strong push back from the Archdiocese of Chicago and other Roman Catholic bishops opposed to gay marriage.
"I think it's pretty clear where the Catholic church is on the sanctity of marriage. We continue to put out information reinforcing that," said Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois.
Gilligan said he is confident the votes weren't there to pass gay marriage when lawmakers left Springfield last week.
But Gilligan expressed worry that the issue could become intertwined in the horse-trading of lame-duck votes that is sure to come when a series of contentious issues surface in January, including pension reform, gambling expansion, drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants and legalization of medical marijuana.
"When they're in a lame-duck status, that makes it even more unpredictable so, yes, this is a time of great concern for us," he told the Sun-Times.
Despite promises from Steans and Harris that the traditions of religious institutions will be respected in a gay-marriage bill, Gilligan predicted inevitable reverberations if the legislation passes.
Such was the case two years ago when civil unions were legalized. That opened up an enormous legal fight between the state and Catholic church that resulted in the church no longer helping in the placement of adoptive children over concerns about putting kids in gay or lesbian households.
"Things like that need to be thought through. So far, it doesn't seem to me that enough attention has been given to that," he said.
"For example, the Knights of Columbus have halls and rent them out for wedding receptions and other functions. The Knights being a Catholic institution, if same sex marriage becomes law, are we required to rent out to a marriage we don't recognize?"
The bill, House Bill 5170, would take effect July 1 and extend all of the benefits of marriage to gay and lesbian couples. However, it would not compel religious institutions to solemnize gay marriages.
"We want to respect each religion and to follow its faith and tradition," Harris said.
Under their plan, those who have obtained civil unions could convert them to marriage licenses during the first year of the law without paying any fees.
Thursday's conference call was overseen by ASGK Public Strategies, a communications and strategy firm co- founded by Obama advisor David Axelrod, who no longer has a financial stake in the company.
Harris and Steans would not say who was helping pay for the firm's services.
"We've got a coalition of folks in Illinois who are working together on all the different aspects of this," Harris said.
Photo by John H White/Sun-Times