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Article updated: 4/25/2013 8:11 AM

Black legislators could determine fate of gay marriage

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The fate of a measure that would authorize same-sex couples to marry in Illinois might rest with 20 black legislators of the state's House, the leader of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus said Tuesday.

Rep. Ken Dunkin, who is the head of the 30-member group, said the legislative proposal, which has been waiting for the House's approval for more than two months, may fail if members of his caucus don't support it.

Dunkin, a Chicago Democrat, publicly endorsed the bill Tuesday. He said he hopes his endorsement will help him persuade the other 19 black legislators in the House -- all Democrats and mostly from the Chicago area -- to support the measure.

"(We) have a number of black caucus members that are on the fence. I want to show that doing the right thing is the reason why we're down there in Springfield," Dunkin said. "This vote would determine whether we have evolved or not as a society."

Dunkin's group is made up 20 House members and 10 senators.

The proposal received Senate approval on Valentine's Day. The chief sponsor of the proposal, Chicago Democratic Rep. Greg Harris, has said he's fewer than 12 votes short of the 60 needed to pass the measure in the House.

But opponents of the bill have used the two months since the bill cleared the upper chamber to lobby undecided lawmakers, making black legislators a target of their efforts.

Some black pastors, an influential group that has the power to sway the way their parishioners vote, have been vocal about their opposition since the proposal began moving through the legislature in January, and some leaders of megachurches in Chicago have launched aggressive opposition campaigns.

Last month, prominent pastors of several black Chicago churches launched their opposition with 60-second commercials on black radio stations.

In one ad, Bishop Larry Trotter of Chicago's Sweet Holy Spirit tells listeners to urge legislators to vote against the proposal.

"I, too, am opposed to same sex marriage as you and every Christian should be," said Trotter, whose church boasts up to 9,000 members. "Marriage was the first institution created by our God. He tells us in the word that marriage should be between a man and a woman and not those of the same sex."

Dunkin acknowledged he has been lobbied daily by opponents of the bill, including his own minister. However, he added, this is a matter of treating all families equally under the law.

"So much of our political support comes from the black church, but because this is such a major issue in our society, you need leaders like myself to lead and not follow, especially when it is important to do the right thing," Dunkin said.

Supporters of the bill expect the House to vote on the measure before the General Assembly's scheduled May 31 adjournment. Gov. Pat Quinn has said he supports the bill. Should it become law, it would make Illinois the 10th state to allow same-sex marriage. Illinois approved civil unions in 2011.

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