By Mary Massingale Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD — Civil unions gained a strong foothold in Illinois on Tuesday, as House lawmakers narrowly approved the measure granting spousal legal rights to same-sex couples.
The measure was one of a trifecta of so-called liberal social issues that resonated throughout the House during the day, as a proposal to legalize marijuana for medical purposes was defeated before it was pulled for later consideration, and an initiative to abolish the death penalty narrowly passed a committee.
The civil unions legislation is expected to be voted on in the Senate on Wednesday, where supporters expect passage and subsequent approval by Gov. Pat Quinn. The measure would then take effect on July 1.
House sponsor Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, likened Senate Bill 1716 to past landmark fights for equality in granting women the right to vote and allowing interracial couples to marry.
“We have a chance today to make Illinois a more fair state, a more just state and a state which treats all of its citizens equally under the law,” he said.
Harris and state Rep. Deb Mell, D-Chicago, are the only two openly gay lawmakers in the legislature. Earlier this year, Mell announced her engagement to her partner while on the House floor.
“After six years of building a life together, committing our lives to each other – we have a strong faith in God and family – and after all that we are still not considered family,” Mell said. “And I assure you we are a family, and we deserve the same rights that you enjoy.”
Opponents, however, cast the issue in a shroud of immorality as they viewed it as an attack on traditional marriage, even though the legislation allows for religious freedom.
“I think that this is a step down a slippery slope that leads me to someday have to explain to my children and grandchildren that no longer in America are we going to give the honor to a man and a woman in marriage,” said state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Highland.
The measure needed 60 votes to pass — it garnered 61, with 52 lawmakers voting “no,” and two voting present.
Quinn entered the chamber during Harris’ closing speech, and later declared the bill’s passage “right.”
“I think it is the right thing to do because it’s the right of conscience of people of our state that they should have this right,” Quinn said. “I think it is important that we respect the diversity that we have in our state and be a tolerant state of Illinois.”
State Rep. Lou Lang’s push for medical marijuana didn’t fare as well, however. Senate Bill 1381 also needed 60 votes to pass, but garnered only 53 “yes” votes.
The Chicago Democrat painted the measure as a health care initiative since it allowed only a limited number of cannabis plants to be kept by patients diagnosed by a physician with a debilitating condition. The measure previously passed the Senate.
“We had a national debate that went on for over a year about health care — long debate, controversial, arguing across this country about health care – and it’s a health care plan that will cost America billions of dollars — be for it, be against it, that’s not the point,” Lang said. “The point is this is health care for Illinois under narrowly defined circumstances that will not cost the taxpayers of Illinois one dime.”
Lang could bring the measure back for consideration before the new General Assembly is seated in January.
Legislation abolishing the death penalty also could be voted on by the House before members close out the fall veto session on Wednesday. A panel of lawmakers Tuesday morning approved Senate Bill 3539 by a 4-3 vote despite testimony from several prosecutors who defended the ultimate punishment.
“There are important safeguards in place to protect those who claim innocence, and I think it is a sufficient and an appropriate deterrent to crime,” said Joe Bruscato, Winnebago County states’ attorney. ”And it is an appropriate punishment for the worst of the worst — those who commit heinous murders in our communities across the state.”
Former Death Row inmate Randy Steidl, however, noted the possibility of human error has to be recognized. Steidl was freed from an Illinois prison in 2004 after new evidence exonerated him of the murders of a newlywed couple in Paris, Ill.
“Why I’m here today is to show how that the prosecutors, even if they do everything above board, can still put an innocent person on Death Row,” he said.
The House meets again on Wednesday before leaving for Christmas break, then to return the first week of January for lame-duck session.The Senate is scheduled to meet both Wednesday and Thursday.