(SPRINGFIELD) Legislation to make Illinois the 10th state to allow same-sex marriage passed a Senate committee Tuesday with new language designed to give churches more protection from having to allow wedding ceremonies at their facilities.
The measure, sponsored by Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago), passed the Senate Executive Committee by a 9-5 vote and now heads to the Senate floor for a full vote expected to occur on Valentine’s Day.
“We think we have the votes, but [we are] cautiously optimistic,” Steans said. “You never know until you’re actually pushing those buttons. People are people.”
The same Senate panel approved similar legislation during the lame-duck legislative session in early January. But that plan stalled when backers acknowledged absences of three key votes kept them below the minimum 30-vote threshold needed to pass the Senate.
A central question before the committee then was how institutions receiving public funding would be required to receive same-sex marriage ceremonies. But that language has been dropped from the bill this time, Steans said.
“We didn’t do anything with public funding in this bill,” she said. “There have been concerns about that in the original language. That language is all removed. We’re not touching that.”
Tuesday’s debate focused on whether churches are defined as public accommodations under the state’s Human Rights Act, which says the availability of public accommodations shall not be determined on the basis of sexual orientation.
Though the word “church” does not appear under that section of the law, one definition of a “public accommodation” comes close, describing “an auditorium, convention center, lecture hall or other place of public gathering.”
Some of the bill’s opponents say a lack of clarity in this area could cause trouble in the courts. Joseph La Rue, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, testified before the committee that the bill doesn’t clearly exempt churches from renting out their facilities such as in other states like New York.
“What Illinois’ bill says is public accommodations decisions will be subject to the Human Rights Act and to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and nobody knows for sure what that means,” he said.
“Nobody knows how this will play out. And so instead of giving churches protection, the Legislature is simply punting the ball down the field for future courts and future legislatures to decide, and that leaves churches in a very precarious spot.”
While La Rue and other opponents would like to see an explicit exemption for churches, Steans believes it is unnecessary and doesn’t foresee any legal issues.
“Public accommodation issues really get into if you’re opening a public business, and you’re advertising and renting and all that stuff,” she said. “That’s not what a church is typically doing.”
Among others who testified in the packed room before the committee were Suzie Hutton and her partner Danielle Cook. The Bloomington-Normal area residents and their son, Kaleb, also came to Springfield last month to support same-sex marriage.
Cook told the committee that in order to ease the tension of explaining her civil union with Hutton to friends, she would often joke that their relationship was finally “civilized.”
“But it hurts,” she said, tearing up. “It hurts because our relationship is recognized differently. People often unintentionally offer less respective dignity to our relationship because marriage is the standard in our society.”
Following an emotional debate last month when supporters waited hours in the Capitol before being called to testify, Hutton said they felt more confident and prepared Tuesday.
“I think it was an excellent experience to go through it because we knew a little bit more about it, and we’re just excited,” she said. “Every day we’re one step closer to having marriage.”
Gov. Pat Quinn praised Tuesday’s development, which he said marked another step toward “providing equal rights to all people in Illinois.”
“I thank the members of the Senate Executive Committee for advancing this measure today and look forward to working to pass this bill through both houses in the days to come,” he said in a prepared statement.
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