Tuesday, the Illinois capitol was jammed with supporters of Senate Bill 10, the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act (SB10), which would legalize same-sex marriage in Illinois. Yesterday, a throng of people denouncing the bill jammed the state capitol. According to most reports, there were about as many protesters (2,000 to 3,000) supporting the bill as there were opposing it during the 48-hours of grass roots advocacy. For a civics student, this fight that intertwines civil rights, legal, religious and emotional issues is a great example of the Illinois Statehouse legislative process that place politicians at crossroads.
From the outside, the road to passing SB10 seems clear. If enacted, Illinois would be the 15th state to legalize same-sex marriage. Illinois is also the home of same-sex marriage proponent President Barack Obama and is such a “blue” state that the Democratic Party controls the Offices of the Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State and has veto-proof majorities in both legislative chambers. The issue is trending towards support nationally and it was given legal cover by the U.S. Supreme Court in June of this year when it ruled that same-sex couples could not be denied federal benefits and cleared the way for same-sex marriages in California. To make it even easier, SB10 is just about the only major piece of legislation Governor Pat Quinn has said he would sign during the Veto Session that is not contingent upon passing pension reform legislation. Even the procedural snag is easy to get around. Technically, SB10 needs 71 votes to pass during the Veto Session. But, it can easily be amended to change the effective date from immediately to January 1, 2014, which would then make the threshold for passage only 60 votes.
However, the dynamics of the Illinois Statehouse show why passage is not a slam-dunk. One would think that because the Democratic Party has a 71 to 47 seat advantage in the Illinois House, which is heavily populated by representatives from the City of Chicago and that Chicago is home to one of the larger LGBT communities in the nation would be an advantage. It is not. A small group of Chicago state representatives is the obstacle.
In terms of a vote count, at the end of the last Budget Session, SB10 bill was lacking about 12 votes in the House for passage. Now it is believed that sponsor Representative Greg Harris (D-Chicago) may need as few as 7 to 3 votes to pass the bill. The pool for those votes is evident – the 20 members of the House Democratic Black Caucus. But, they have been lobbied/threatened by African-American clergy and other religious groups to not support SB10. Ironically, SB10 supporters cite civil rights protection as the strongest argument to pass the bill, which places the members of the House Democratic Black Caucus in a conundrum. They must define how they view separation of church and state while balancing that with being ardent fighters against discrimination.
Now comes a key of lobbying and advocacy, the pre-vote roll call. According to some sources, there may only be 8 members of the House Black Caucus supporting SB10. It is unknown whether the other dozen are on the fence, leaning “no” or are adamantly against. It also isn’t clear whether the 8 supporters are leaning “yes” or are strong supporters. Representative Harris needs the strong supporters to swing the leaners and the fence-sitters along with help from constituents via phone calls and e-mails and the professional assistance of lobbyists with relationships with those legislators. Harris better, because the religious groups and others leading the fight against SB10 are doing exactly that. For example, yesterday, David Smith, the executive director of the Illinois Family Institute said, “anyone who votes for same-sex marriage can expect a political challenge either in a primary or general election.”
So civics students, that’s how the process works. The cameras start rolling again in Springfield on SB10 on November 5th when Veto Session starts again and Harris can try to call a successful floor vote. If he does, he will probably already know the final tally because the real action was behind the scenes that started today in those 12 legislator’s district offices.