The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision on Wednesday to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act would do little now for gay and lesbian couples in Illinois.
The ruling that allows equal access to federal benefits will apply only to states that have legalized same-sex marriage.
However, the ruling gave new momentum to so-far failed efforts to legalize same-sex marriage here — but not by way of the Illinois General Assembly.
Illinois’ best chance now, activists and legal experts say, is through an ongoing court battle. They argue that the court’s legal conclusion that it is unconstitutional to deny federal benefits to same-sex married couples bolsters an ongoing Illinois court battle in which legal experts — including Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan — argue that the Illinois constitution already allows for legal same-sex marriages.
“We think this really tees this up in allowing us to move forward in the case,” said Edwin Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union. “We have a much stronger hand to play now even than we did in May.”
On May 31, the last day of the session, the Illinois House was poised to call the same-sex marriage bill — called the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act — but never did, disappointing dozens of gay and lesbian couples who packed into the Capitol. The measure had passed the Illinois Senate but its support lost steam, lacking the critical 60 votes to put it over the top. Now, advocates say the Supreme Court’s ruling may affect Illinois lawmakers.
“This changes the landscape tremendously,” Rep. Greg Harris (D-Chicago), the measure’s chief House sponsor, told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Without a court ruling or change in Illinois state law, however, the Supreme Court’s Wednesday decision means Illinois couples would not have access to benefits enjoyed by legally married couples.
“What this underscores is what we now have is a situation where there will be people in Minnesota or Iowa that have benefits that will not be extended to couples in Illinois,” Yohnka said. “Even having a civil union does not carry with it 1,100 areas of federal law where being married either offers protections or extends particular benefits.”
Tony Tovar, of Chicago, and his partner, are among those people.
“It’s like a halfway victory,” said Tovar, 29. He and Orlando Rodriguez became partners through a civil union in Illinois in 2011. “I hope that the state of Illinois will step up and say, ‘Yeah, let’s pass marriage here.’ I have not heard that. That kind of scares me now. Our politicians definitely need to just get it together.”
Politically, the development offers an interesting twist. Some of the blame for the lack of action in Springfield on the issue was directed at House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) who runs his chamber with an iron fist. Now, his daughter, Lisa Madigan, who appears to be positioning for a gubernatorial run, may take a bigger role in helping accomplish what the general assembly couldn’t.
“In striking down DOMA, the Supreme Court has given added strength to our court fight to overturn Illinois’ ban on same sex marriage,” Lisa Madigan said in a statement. The state has filed as an intervener in the ongoing case brought by a group supportive of gay rights. “Today’s decision also intensifies the need to pass a marriage equality bill in our state and ensure that all Illinois couples have access to the full rights and benefits of civil marriage.”
While the impact of dual U.S. Supreme Court rulings strengthening gay rights rippled across the country Wednesday, it didn’t appear to have the same seismic effect in Springfield.
Gov. Pat Quinn, a supporter of Harris’ legislation, also weighed in favorably on the court’s rulings, which struck down the denial of federal benefits to gay and lesbian couples and, in a separate case, moved California closer to resuming same-sex marriages.
Neither Quinn nor Harris would offer a specific timetable on when the House might vote on the contentious issue — silence that seemed to be a clear indicator that the head count of supporters remains shy of 60 votes.
“The Supreme Court took a historic step by providing equal access to more than 1,100 federal rights and benefits for same-sex couples,” the governor said in a prepared statement. “Members of the Illinois House now have more than 1,100 new reasons to make marriage equality the law in Illinois.”
“I’ve always said I’d call this for a vote when the time is right and the votes are there,” Harris said, “and right now, I think it’s premature to say a specific date [for a vote]. But I’d like to make this the law of the land sooner rather than later.”
Neither he nor the governor Wednesday advocated a special legislative session to deal with the issue, heightening the likelihood that there will be no action before the six-day fall veto session, which starts on Oct. 22.
And even then, the political calendar is no friend to the governor or Harris.
On-the-fence legislators pressed to vote for the legislation could still wind up facing an unwelcome primary opponent because the final day to submit nominating petitions is Dec. 2, giving last-minute opponents nearly a month to gather signatures after the veto session’s scheduled Nov. 7 conclusion.
Still, Wednesday’s court rulings brought signs of some movement, including within the 20-member House Black Caucus. At the end of May, only five lawmakers in the caucus had publicly committed to voting in favor of the same-sex marriage bill.
State Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago), a vocal critic of Harris’ plan, told the Chicago Sun-Times that she now is “much more inclined” to vote for it because gay couples in other states will now have access to federal benefits but those in Illinois will not.
“I don’t want to hurt their Social Security,” Davis said. “Surely you cannot have people in one state getting Social Security and have people in another who do not. That cannot go.”
But another leading member of the House Black Caucus said Wednesday’s decisions aren’t a game-changer for him.
“I won’t call it a non-factor,” said state Rep. Will Davis (D-Homewood), who has been noncommittal on the same-sex marriage question. “But I don’t think it necessarily changes how I vote on the issue. . . . I have to pay attention to the people who live in my district.
“I’m not sure what impact, for many, that will have moving forward,” Davis said of the rulings.
The two Davises and others within the caucus have faced a withering lobbying pitch from black ministers, while Cardinal Francis George and fellow Catholic bishops have tried to persuade Roman Catholic House members to vote against Harris’ bill.
One of the leading voices among the black ministers, former state Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago), wouldn’t comment on the impact of Wednesday’s rulings, but the Catholic leaders shows absolutely no softening of their resolve.
In a statement, Cardinal George called the court’s action “illogical and pretentious.”
“This morning, in the guise of technical legal language, the United States Supreme Court advanced the project of making marriage in the United States a genderless institution,” the statement said. “Since women and men are not interchangeable, the Court’s action is illogical and pretentious. The Court abuses its own authority when it permits civil law to alter the definition of marriage, which is a natural institution. What is truly at stake in these decisions is not the right of adults to love whom they please, but rather the right of children to have both a mother and a father.
“Today’s decisions also bring us one step closer to the day when those who continue to distinguish between genuine marital unions and same-sex arrangements will be regarded as “bigots,” George’s statement said. “We have already seen the negative result of gender-free unions on Catholic social services here in Illinois and other states. We can all be grateful that the Court did not create a new “right” to same-sex marriage, allowing Illinois and other states to continue to acknowledge in law what nature and nature’s God already tell us: that marriage is the union of one man and one woman for the sake of family.”