A Valentine's Day Vote for Same-Sex Marriage

For Illinois's same-sex couples wishing to wed, the Valentine's Day candy should be extra sweet. The state senate is expected to vote on a same-sex marriage bill today. “This is an exciting time to be a gay-rights lawyer,” Camilla Taylor, counsel for Lamdba Legal, told me.

Taylor has good reason to be excited. With a Democratic supermajority, just about everyone expects the chamber will pass the measure. Then the bill will go to the House, where the leadership is also supportive.

The news is part of a larger trend. Many expect the number of states recognizing same-sex marriage to grow significantly this year; activists have their sights set on five different states—Illinois, Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, and Hawaii. All have supportive governors and Democratic majorities in the legislature. In New Jersey, where Republican governor Chris Christie vetoed a marriage-equality bill last year, people are working to build enough support to overturn his decision. Nine states already allow same-sex marriage and Taylor, who helped draft the Illinois measure, says she and friends from Rhode Island have a happy competition about which state will be number ten. In the other states, the measures will probably come to votes later in the year.

Not only are gay-marriage bills working their way through legislatures, this year there’s been far less talk of gay-marriage bans. In Indiana last week, GOP lawmakers postponed until 2014 a vote on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. The extra time is a huge boost, giving activists more time to sway politicians. Already there’s not overwhelming support for the measure: a November poll showed only 38 percent of residents supported the change. A more recent survey from the Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll showed that among likely voters, 45 percent supported the amendment compared with 43 who did not. Advocates believe with a year to work with they’ll be able to shift those numbers even further. Already, two major corporations -- pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and engine maker Cummins Inc. -- have opposed the proposed change for fear it will prevent them from attracting talent.

Business support will likely offer helpful examples to advocates in Rhode Island. While the state house already passed a marriage-equality bill earlier this year with big numbers, the senate is not quite as friendly. The chair of the judiciary senate committee has openly opposed same-sex marriage and Senate president Teresa Paiva-Weed says she does not support the bill as written and would rather focus on creating jobs. Governor Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican turned independent, has started to argue for the economic benefits of same-sex marriage—namely that it will encourage more businesses to locate in the state. The situation in Indiana certainly doesn't hurt his claims. For her part, however, Paiva-Weed has promised the measure will get a vote during the session.

In Illinois, though, the path to marriage equality looks increasingly difficult. Though the Catholic Church still vehemently opposes the measure, clergy from a bunch of other faiths have come out in strong support, particularly in Chicago. Taylor, who helped draft the bill, noted that there's a good chance the measure will get bipartisan support, at least in the house. The state's GOP chair Pat Brady has already said he does not oppose gay marriage. “More and more people have committed to be with us,” says Taylor. “It’s been a process of snowballing momentum." Expect that momentum to spread to other states soon.

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