Opinion: Chicago Tribune: A spouse is a spouse

Chicago Tribune   ·   Link to Article

A little more than two years ago, the Illinois General Assembly took a carefully measured step toward marriage equality, the full legal recognition of committed partnerships, regardless of the parties' sexual orientation.

With that vote in December 2010, Illinois became the sixth state to recognize civil unions, extending many of the rights and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples.

Now, with the momentum of public support behind them, lawmakers are within one floor vote of going the distance. With the approval of the House — and Gov. Pat Quinn's promised signature — Illinois would become the 10th state to allow same-sex couples to wed.

The Senate passed the measure Thursday, 34-21. We urge the House to finish the job.

If the measure is approved, state laws would apply equally to marriages between "two persons," instead of between "a man and a woman." In the eyes of the law, in other words, a spouse is a spouse. Same-sex couples would have the same benefits and protections as heterosexual couples. And yes, they'd have the state's official sanction of their marriage.

Government validation isn't the same as a religious blessing, and it shouldn't be. That has always been an important distinction, and it's the reason Illinois and other states acted first to allow civil unions. Marriage has deeply religious connotations for many people, and many faiths have moral objections to same-sex partnerships.

Out of respect for those beliefs, the Illinois measure explicitly states that ministers and churches would not be required to recognize or solemnize gay marriages — in the same way that some churches decline to marry mixed-faith couples or divorced people.

Some religious groups worried that the law would require them to allow same-sex ceremonies in their halls or sanctuaries, in violation of their faith. So Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, amended the bill to assure that churches would not be penalized for refusing to hold same-sex weddings in their facilities.

That change won the support of Sen. Jason Barickman of Champaign, the only Republican to vote in favor of the bill.

We hope Republicans in the House will be brave enough to support this for the reason cited by Barickman, because citizens "want our government to give individuals freedom over their life decisions."

Allowing same-sex couples to wed under the law would not devalue traditional marriage. It would affirm the bedrock values that underlie and sustain such unions.

Marriage promotes stable families, safeguards the interests of children and rewards committed relationships.

Recognizing same-sex marriages demonstrates respect for personal freedoms and keeps government out of the intimate affairs of citizens. More people in same-sex relationships are adopting or giving birth to children; this provides the security of a legal commitment for those children. It's the fair thing to do.

It's also smart politics. Support for gay marriage has been building steadily: A 1996 Gallup poll found 27 percent of Americans in favor of allowing same-sex couples to wed; now it's at 50 percent with a bullet, since the strongest support comes from younger voters.

Public opinion is shifting with remarkable speed. In November, voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington approved referendums allowing gay marriage, and in Minnesota, voters rejected a constitutional amendment to ban it.

That support has been building in Springfield, too, as evidenced by the Senate vote. Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady announced his support for same-sex marriage, prompting an attempt by some conservatives to oust him from the party post. That attempt failed. Undeterred by the risk of repercussions, Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, also a Republican, recently urged lawmakers to "go for it."

Ladies and gentlemen of the House, it's your turn to step up.

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