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updated: 10/4/2012 1:24 PM

Gay marriage a big issue but not biggest, candidates say

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While the question whether same-sex couples should be legally allowed to marry is percolating on both the state and federal levels, suburban candidates on both sides of the issue are stepping back from making it a central point in their campaigns.

Legislation in Springfield to legalize gay marriage is getting attention, and a state court case trying to achieve the same goal is under review.

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On the federal level, President Barack Obama has voiced support for same-sex marriage for the first time, though saying states should decide it. And the U.S. Supreme Court term that started this week could have the court decide whether to take arguments in one of several gay marriage cases.

It's an issue that remains controversial in Illinois, but as voters worry about their job security and financial futures, candidates for seats in both Washington, D.C., and Springfield say they're not necessarily making it a talking point.

Asked in a Daily Herald questionnaire whether the law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman should be overturned or upheld, Congressman Joe Walsh responded with a two-sentence answer, far shorter than his lengthy responses on other issues.

"I believe that marriage should be defined as one man and one woman. However, I do not believe this issue is central to the campaign," the McHenry Republican wrote.

His opponent, Democrat Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates, supports legalizing gay marriage, which she describes as "rooted in love."

Congresswoman Judy Biggert of Hinsdale -- one of three Republicans across the nation to get a financial boost from pro-gay rights Republican superPAC American Unity -- says the issue should be handled by the states.

The superPAC, founded by New Yorker Paul Singer, will spend $500,000 on ads supporting her and attacking her opponent, Democrat Bill Foster of Naperville.

Biggert, like her opponent, who served in Congress from 2009 to 2011, has voted for stricter sentencing for hate crimes and to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. Asked about her position on gay marriage, she noted "no Congress ever has seen fit to amend the Constitution to address any issue related to marriage."

The states, Biggert said, "should be "free to pursue their own course with respect to marriage, and that can be accomplished with no additional influence from Washington."

Even though Foster has evolved from publicly supporting civil unions to backing full gay marriage in recent months, the American Unity superPAC is expected to attack him on other issues with a goal of electing pro-gay-rights Republicans.

Obama's caveat -- shared by lawmakers like Biggert -- that the issue should be decided by the states means even if he's re-elected, the future of gay marriage in Illinois is more likely to play out in Springfield than in Washington.

Illinois lawmakers approved civil unions in late 2010 -- during a lame-duck legislative session after the November election but before the new General Assembly was seated -- when tricky votes like that one are deemed less politically dangerous.

For now, it's unclear whether gay marriage supporters would try the same move after this Nov. 6 election. If they don't -- or if they do and fail -- the question could fall to lawmakers elected in November. Legislation legalizing gay marriage has been filed in Springfield and almost certainly would be again in the new term.

In court, the American Civil Liberties Union and others say they're prepared to take a case all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, but it's far from there now. An Aurora couple are among the plaintiffs.

Dee Beaubien, an independent running for the 52nd House District seat in the Barrington area, says she feels strongly that not allowing same-sex marriage is discrimination. But, even so, Beaubien says she's not asked about it much as she walks door to door talking to voters.

"That doesn't mean that it isn't an issue," she said.

Beaubien's opponent, Republican David McSweeney of Barrington Hills, agrees that the issue doesn't come up much, but he's clear that he doesn't support same-sex marriage.

"When someone asks me," he says, "that's my answer."

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