Lawmakers approved gay marriage Tuesday in a historic vote that saw supporters overcome cultural, racial and geographic divides and put Illinois in line with a growing number of states that have extended the right to wed to same-sex couples.
After more than a year of intense lobbying by both sides, gay lawmakers made emotional pleas to colleagues to give their families equal rights even as opponents argued that doing so would unravel the foundation of society.
"At the end of the day, what this bill is about is love, it's about family, it's about commitment," said sponsoring Rep. Greg Harris, clutching an American flag he said was sent by a supportive soldier stationed in Afghanistan.
"At the end of the day, this bill is about the vision that the founders of our country had and wrote into our Constitution, where they said America is a journey. … And we'll continue to walk down that road to make America a better place, to make ourselves a 'more perfect union,' to ensure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity," the Chicago Democrat said.
Gov. Pat Quinn said he intends to sign the bill, which would take effect June 1. It's the Democratic governor's latest step in taking Illinois in a more liberal direction. Under Quinn in the past three years, Illinois has banned the death penalty, legalized medical marijuana, provided driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants and approved civil unions.
Resolving the gay marriage question also allows state leaders to get a divisive issue off their plates before next year's big statewide election, even as long-standing financial issues headlined by the state's $100 billion public worker pension shortfall remain unresolved.
"Michelle and I are overjoyed for all the committed couples in Illinois whose love will now be as legal as ours — and for their friends and family who have long wanted nothing more than to see their loved ones treated fairly and equally under the law," Obama said in a statement.
The vote Tuesday capped a year in which prospects for gay marriage often were dim. The proposal failed in a January lame-duck session, but the Illinois Senate provided new hope on Valentine's Day by passing the measure. There was no House vote at the end of spring session in late May, leaving both sides to spend the summer and fall lobbying lawmakers. The first week of veto session came and went without a vote last month, and with candidate filing for next year's election just weeks away, some expected no resolution until next year.
But the bill got 61 votes, one more than the minimum needed to send it back to the Senate for a final signoff later Tuesday.
Supporters said efforts to pick up votes were boosted by events that unfolded since May, the first being the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling that struck down the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman for the purpose of receiving federal benefits.
While hailed as a major victory, the move created a situation in which gay couples living in states that recognize same-sex marriage have more rights than their counterparts in states that haven't legalized gay marriage. The two-class system was a clear narrative that advocates could use when lobbying lawmakers who were on the fence, contending it just didn't make sense for gay couples in Illinois to be denied access to benefits that were available to couples living just across the border in Iowa.
Advocates soon received additional help from Pope Francis, who warned that the Catholic Church could lose its way by focusing too much on social stances, including opposition to homosexuality.
"If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?" Francis said in July.
The comments sparked a wave of soul-searching by several Catholic lawmakers who had battled to reconcile their religious beliefs with their sworn duty to represent their constituents who were increasingly supportive of gay rights even as Cardinal Francis George remained opposed.
"As a Catholic follower of Jesus and the pope, Pope Francis, I am clear that our Catholic religious doctrine has at its core love, compassion and justice for all people," said Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, a Democrat from Aurora who voted for the bill after spending much of the summer undecided.
House Speaker Michael Madigan also cited the pope's comments in explaining his support for the measure.
"For those that just happen to be gay — living in a very harmonious, productive relationship but illegal — who am I to judge that they should be illegal?" the speaker said.
Madigan had come under fire from some gay rights groups who argued that he wasn't doing enough to build support in the chamber he controls, but advocates say he was critical in rounding up the final needed votes in the last several weeks.
Later, Madigan acknowledged that he helped persuade "a significant number of people" to vote for the legislation. But always one to leave some mystery hanging, Madigan would not state how many or which lawmakers he brought across the finish line.