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posted: 11/7/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: The slow, difficult task of historic change

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

History is not easily budged.

The U.S. Constitution, now considered one of the pre-eminent civil rights documents in human history, was four years in the making and upon its final acceptance by a sharply divided delegation, ratification by the requisite nine colonies was by no means certain. In 1864, the U.S. House of Representatives, voting along party lines, at first refused to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery and ultimately achieved only barely the two-thirds majority required. A century later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 endured 57 days of filibuster in the U.S. Senate before a slim four-vote margin enabled the bill to reach the floor for action.

So, it should come as neither surprise nor commentary that Illinois Senate Bill 10, The Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, had to navigate a tense and uncertain summer before passing the state House in fall session Tuesday by just two votes. It should come as celebration -- celebration of a victory, as we argued in July 2012 when we first articulated our support for legalizing same-sex marriage, for the side of human dignity.

With the passage of Senate Bill 10, gay couples shed a mantle of second-class citizenship in Illinois and assume the rights and responsibilities shared by all couples in the state. That is a considerable step, not merely for the practical activities it entails, such as a joint filing of income taxes, property ownership and health decisions, but also for the demands of the institution it makes accessible.

Marriage, it bears emphasizing, is no small commitment. It imposes substantial duties and expectations on those aspiring to it, regardless of their sexual orientation. In many ways, the opening of the door to marriage has not eased but intensified the nature of the lifelong relationship now open to gay men and women.

Opponents contended that Senate Bill 10 aimed to reshape what we think of marriage. We don't see it that way. The nature of marriage has not changed; the institution has simply expanded its embrace. Marriage remains what it always has been and always will be -- a promise between two people to support and accommodate each other throughout their lives despite the considerable obstacles that life and the selfishness of human nature invariably impose.

Making that promise has never required a piece of paper. And, no piece of paper can by itself validate the promise. But that piece of paper acknowledging the promise and representing the practical rights and titles it can confer soon will be available to all Illinoisans equally -- while, it should be noted, pointedly recognizing the respect due those whose personal or religious values reject the concept of gay marriage.

A determined coalition of Illinois senators and representatives -- some of them displaying admirable political courage -- recognized these civil rights Tuesday and in a historic action, encoded them into state law.

Getting history to move was, as it often is, arduous and contentious. But moved it now is, and as is always the case when human dignity is advanced, we are all the better for it.

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