Illinois, take this step

  ·  Geoffery R. Stone, Chicago Tribune   ·   Link to Article

The Illinois Senate approved legislation that will legalize marriage between same-sex couples in Illinois. The Illinois House Executive Committee recommended passage of the legislation. Gov. Pat Quinn said he supports that legislation and will enthusiastically sign it into law. All that remains is for the Illinois House to approve the legislation to make Illinois the 10th state in the nation to legalize marriage between same-sex couples.

Now is the time for Illinois to take this step. It is demanded by our nation's commitment to fairness, justice and equality. Now is the time for us all to leave behind a long and sorrowful history of hateful discrimination, fear, hostility and ignorance. Now is the time for us to live up to our own highest aspirations as Americans.

There was a time, not that long ago, when gays and lesbians in our state and in our nation were ostracized, humiliated, scorned, fired, castrated, sterilized and jailed. They were treated as morally corrupt, mentally degenerate and genetically deformed. The only way to survive in that environment was to hide one's own identity, to pretend to be what one was not, and to find shelter deep in the closet.

Inspired by the civil rights movement, some homosexuals found the courage to claim their own identities publicly and to assert their rights to dignity, respect and equality. This met with violent reprisals, unemployment and gross discrimination. But they persevered and set an example for others. And so we came gradually to know, initially to our shock, that our friends and neighbors, our cousins and uncles, our sons and daughters — people we'd loved and respected — were gays and lesbians. It took extraordinary courage for them to come out and to tell us the truth, because the truth was and too often still is colored by shame and dismay.

But we have changed as a society. We have come to understand that people around us — good, kind, decent, loving people — are themselves gays and lesbians. And with that awareness of individual gays and lesbians, the social view of homosexuals generally has gradually changed. We have come to understand that, whatever the cause of their difference, gay men and women are good, kind, decent and loving people who deserve our love and respect.

The people of Illinois have already recognized that same-sex couples deserve the right to enter into civil unions that are, in theory, equal to marriages in all respects — except in name. Except in name. And there's the rub. Imagine if African-Americans could enter into civil unions but not marriages. Imagine if Catholics could legally enter into civil unions but not marriages. Imagine if mixed-race couples could enter into civil unions but not marriages. The insult, the indignity, the discrimination would be apparent to all. The same is true for same-sex couples.

And why would one object to same-sex couples marrying? At this point in time, the objections are entirely religious. "The marriage of same-sex couples offends my religion's understanding of marriage." "It is a travesty, an abomination, a sacrilege." "It offends everything my religion holds sacred." In the words of Pope Francis, "It is a destructive pretension against the plan of God."

But in these United States, such arguments are not a legitimate reason to deny other citizens their fundamental right to equal treatment under the law. In a nation committed to the separation of church and state, the government can never deny rights to some in order to appease the religious beliefs of others. During the 20th century civil rights struggle, for example, segregationists frequently invoked biblical authority for the separation of the races. The Rev. James E. Burks of Bayview Baptist Church in Norfolk, Va., insisted that God had separated the races, and that "when man sets aside the plain teachings" of the Bible and "disregards the boundary lines God himself has drawn, man assumes a prerogative that belongs to God alone." Similarly, discrimination against women was often justified by reference to "divine ordinance." Such arguments have no place in the American constitutional system.

I understand and respect the strong and sincere feelings of those who think the marriage of same-sex couples is incompatible with their religious beliefs. But they cannot legitimately or with a proper respect for the American system of law and justice attempt to impose those beliefs on those who disagree. They have every right not to marry a person of the same sex and they have every right not to officiate at the marriage of a same-sex couple, but they have no right — no right — to attempt to prevent the government from recognizing such marriages because they offend their religious beliefs.

As the character of Abraham Lincoln said in the recent film, "Now is the time. Now!" It was time to end slavery, once and for all. I would say the same today about our continuing discrimination against gay and lesbian couples who wish nothing more than to marry. Now is the time. Now!

Geoffrey R. Stone is a law professor at the University of Chicago.

Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC

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