Editorial: Time for state House to join tide of history on rights

The Illinois Senate has done its part to advance the notion of human rights in Illinois. Now it’s up to the state House.

Debated in the legislature and around the country for more than a year, the arguments for same-sex marriage should by now be clear: Gay couples should be afforded the same rights other loving couples have. Civil unions provide some legal protections but are inherently unequal to marriage. Committed gay relationships don’t in any way weaken the institution of marriage. It is not the government’s role to determine whether gay couples should marry.

Now, the task facing lawmakers — and specifically the House of Representatives — is to summon the conscience, the courage and the political will to do what is right and move Illinois into the growing ranks of states that have taken a stand on same-sex marriage in the interest of advancing human rights.

With Democrats ruling the House as they do the Senate, the outcome in the House may seem predictable, but there are issues here that stretch beyond mere political arithmetic. The tide of democracy, from the inception of our country, has washed always and relentlessly toward broadened human rights, not away from them. Illinois lawmakers have an opportunity to advance that tide and inaugurate a new era of mutual respect among diverse communities in the state.

No doubt, many lawmakers, Republicans especially, are feeling the pressure of a social issue that has complex moral and social dimensions. Eight suburban Republicans — for the most part good people and many of whom we endorsed — opposed the Senate bill. Similar concerns may be brewing in the House.

They need not be. Public attitudes are clearly opening up on the issue of gay marriage, and it’s easy to see a time not so far in the future when this historic vote will represent the kind of turning point in Illinois that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became for the country as a whole. Where, we wonder, do lawmakers want to find their names on this vote when that day comes?

Opposing the Senate measure last week, Barrington Republican Sen. Dan Duffy called the issue a “distraction” from the more urgent matters of the state budget. He and other Republicans also fretted that the legislation might require religious institutions opposed to gay marriage to provide resources for an activity they do not sanction.

Both points are distressing, for they smack more of specious obstructionism than rational analysis. Churches and other organizations have not had problems in the past managing the use of their facilities. And as for the notion of “distraction,” we must point out that already in this session more than 2,000 bills have been filed in the Illinois Senate and more than 2,250 in the House. Among those 4,250 “distractions” is a Duffy bill involving the duration of yellow traffic signals. Legislators, all legislators, deal with multiple topics all the time.

Even so, no one is more outspoken than we have been on the urgency of getting the state’s budget and pension messes under control. We repeatedly have called for lawmakers to move on proposals before them right now that advance those goals. But the legislative holdup on that score is political willpower, not same-sex marriage.

Of course, for any who might agree with Duffy that the gay marriage debate is taking lawmakers’ attention away from more important business, there’s an easy way to put an end to the distraction. Approve the marriage equality law, make a statement about the role of government in the private lives of its citizens, join the tide of history swelling toward broader human rights and move on.

The Senate to its great credit took that step last week. Here’s hoping the House, and perhaps even with a greater measure of open-minded Republican support from the suburbs, will move the bill toward the governor’s desk in the week ahead.

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