SPRINGFIELD --- Religious groups opposed to gay marriage rallied Wednesday at the Capitol to encourage lawmakers to reject a measure that would grant same-sex couples the right to marry in Illinois.
The gathering came one day after gay marriage supporters sought to press legislators to vote on a measure that would make Illinois the 15th state to legalize same-sex marriage. The proposal is stalled in the House after passing the Senate last spring.
Those opposed disputed the suggestion that gay marriage in Illinois is an inevitability in the face of shifting public opinion in favor, calling on lawmakers to uphold the tenants of Christian teaching and keep marriage between one man and one woman. The lobbying efforts from both sides played out even as action on a gay marriage bill looks unlikely during the legislature's fall veto session.
Police estimated that 2,500 people packed the Capitol rotunda and grounds, where they sang "God Bless America" and held signs declaring "Marriage is sacred." They were led in prayer by Monsignor Carl Kemme of the Diocese of Springfield, which a day earlier denied entry to a downtown church by gay rights supporters planning to pray for measure's passage, saying it amounted to blasphemy.
While Cardinal Francis George of Chicago has led efforts to block passage of the gay marriage bill, the Roman Catholic Church also received help from a coalition of African-American clergy members led in part by Bishop Larry Trotter of Sweet Holy Spirit Church in Chicago. Trotter said upholding traditional marriage is about protecting the country's "moral fiber" and called on Christians to "report for duty" in the effort to prevent gay marriage from becoming a reality in Illinois.
"We stand here today because we understand that if we don't stand for something we will fall for anything," Trotter said. "It is very clear to us that what could happen in this place is definitely against the word of God and the will of God."
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has said he would sign the measure if it reaches his desk, but Republican governor candidate Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale declared he would veto the bill if he were the state's chief executive. Dillard and church groups argued that the proposal is unconstitutional because it would violate religious rights. For example, religious organizations might be forced to provide health insurance to an employee's same-sex spouse, they said.
"Defining marriage between one man and one woman to protect children and our families is something the legislature has a duty to do," Dillard said.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Sugar Grove, took advantage of the large crowd to pass petitions to get on the ballot for a possible challenge to Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who supports gay marriage and rallied with advocates a day earlier.
"The (short) answer is if we get enough petitions signed to file in time, I will be there as a candidate to retire (Durbin) permanently," said Oberweis, who has twice lost primary bids for U.S. Senate.
The dueling rallies unfolded after months of intense outreach by supporters and opponents on the issue. But there's no indication legislators are prepared to act on the issue before the end of the year, as some want to wait to see whether they face difficult re-election efforts before casting a controversial vote.
Sponsoring Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, has declined to discuss the timing of a possible vote but contends that it's not if gay marriage will be legalized in Illinois, but when.
Opponents said they refuse to believe that's the case and will not give up quietly.
"Marriage should not be redefined and undermined," said David Smith, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, which helped organize Wednesday's rally.
Also Wednesday, the number of free days at museums will stay at 52 after the House failed to override Quinn's veto of a bill that would have cut it in half. Only 49 lawmakers voted to override the governor, but 71 votes were required.