Two Illinois lawmakers instrumental in the passage of civil union legislation announced Thursday they were within "striking distance" of having enough votes to approve gay marriage.
State Sen. Heather Steans and State Rep. Greg Harris said they planned to try to send Gov. Pat Quinn a bill supporting gay marriage before a new legislature is sworn in Jan. 9. The legislation must have 60 House votes and 30 Senate votes to be sent to the governor, who has already indicated his support.
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The Chicago Democrats declined to reveal a current vote count, but Steans described a change in "tone and tenor" among current lawmakers and Illinois residents alike when discussing the issue.
"People have seen the President coming out and supporting gay marriage," she said. "I think folks heard that."
Harris, one of a handful of openly gay lawmakers in Illinois, has long watched public opinion polls to help direct him as to the timing of calling votes in the state capitol.
"People who have not supported this before now believe it's the right thing," Harris said. He described the issue as "very straightforward. We treat all couples with the same respect and dignity in the eyes of the law and we protect the rights of religious institutions to either consecrate or not consecrate marriages within their faith as they see fit."
The legislation will first be called in the House, Harris said.
Nine states and the District of Columbia so far have legalized gay marriage.
Since June 2011, Illinois has allowed same-sex couples to obtain civil unions, which provide many of the same legal rights and benefits of marriage, but not all. Proponents of gay marriage argue that civil unions render homosexual couples as second-class citizens, and opponents -- which include the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Arlington Heights-based Church of Christian Liberty -- have long cited a "slippery slope" where the state infringed on religious freedoms.
In May, more than two dozen couples filed lawsuits through the ACLU and gay rights group Lambda Legal. But many think a surer and quicker route to change is through the legislature.
If the legislation is passed in Illinois, it would become effective next summer. Harris said couples who had already obtained civil unions could convert their status to a full marriage, Marriage licenses obtained by Illinois residents out of state would be automatically recognized.