Jim Darby and Patrick Bova have been together for 55 years. On Tuesday, the pair watched as marriage equality passed the Illinois General Assembly by a vote of 61 to 54. As a Navy vet, Darby would like to be buried in a veterans' cemetery along with his partner – a right reserved for married couples. Now, as Illinois becomes the 15th state to legalize marriage equality, that will finally be possible.
Darby and Bova are just two of many Illinois citizens affected by the new legislation, called the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fariness Act. Illinois' Democratic governor, Pat Quinn, vowed to sign the bill into law next year, and couples like Mark Towns and Stephen Pearlman can't wait. The pair have been "as married as they can be" for six years, says Towns – but he and Pearlman have still been denied the 1,138 rights conferred to legally married couples, including power of attorney and visitation rights. Adds Pearlman, "It was time that we took the next step forward in making equality a reality for everyone."
In anticipation of the bill's passage, Katie Weiss and Stefanie Smith got engaged earlier this month. Weiss says she knew Smith was the one "as soon as I met her." When she informed relatives of the engagement, she says, her mother told her, "Your marriage will be a teaching moment for many of our family and friends."
Ed Yonhka, the Director of Communications and Public Policy for the Illinois ACLU, sat with couples including Weiss and Smith at the state's capitol on Tuesday. "For all of us, this is personal," says Johnka. "This is about people we know and people we love."
The bill came up for a vote in the Illinois General Assembly earlier this May, but the bill never got called to the floor. So what changed between May and November? Johnka credits the Supreme Court's decision in June to strike down key provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act, as well as the example set by four other states (Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota and New Jersey) which legalized same-sex marriage in the interim. Says Yohnka, "It was a journey."
Although Yonhka was confident that the Illinois bill would pass, Anthony Martinez wasn't so sure. Martinez is the executive director of The Civil Rights Agenda, a Chicago-based LGBT non-profit, and has been talking with legislators to get them on board with the bill. One of their "Yes" votes was out of town with a family emergency on Tuesday. The vote was called at the last minute, so the legislator had to drive up quickly to get there in time. "It was right down to the wire," says Martinez. "I'm still in shock."
So are the bill's opponents. After the bill's passage, the Republican side of the floor was dead silent. Earlier in the day, Rep. Mary Flowers criticized the bill because she felt it wasn't a "civil rights issue." Others were concerned that marriage equality would infringe upon religious freedoms in the state.
In a statement released on Tuesday, the Catholic Conference of Illinois said the organization is "deeply disappointed that members of the General Assembly chose to redefine what is outside of its authority: a natural institution like marriage. We remain concerned about the very real threats to religious liberty that are at stake with the passage of this bill."
For Yasmin Nair, the co-founder of Against Equality, opposition to the bill isn't rooted in religion. As a Chicago resident, she argued that marriage isn't enough. "We live in a state that has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country and a city where we have decimated the school system," says Nair. "We have issues that marriage will never solve."
Nair argues that the bill "does not benefit the average gay and lesbian person," citing issues such as youth homelessness and transgender inequality that marriage does not address.
Weiss and Smith, who are currently setting a wedding date, agree that the LGBT community needs to do more. "Marriage is fantastic and we're very excited, but it's just the start," Weiss says. "This day was a victory, but it reminds us that we have to keep going."