SPRINGFIELD — Gay marriage supporters flocked to the Capitol grounds by the busload Tuesday, waving rainbow-colored flags and wearing rain-soaked bridal veils to pressure lawmakers to make Illinois the 15th state to legalize same-sex unions.
The show of force that police estimated at 3,000 people ran up against the political reality that there's little indication the Illinois House is any closer to approving a gay marriage bill than it was before a summer of lobbying efforts. Lawmakers are waiting to see whether they face difficult re-election efforts, and religious groups opposed to the bill plan their own rally Wednesday.
The situation has created a sharp divide among advocates who are split on how sponsoring Rep. Greg Harris should proceed. On one side are those demanding that Harris call the bill even if the support isn't there, arguing that lawmakers should be held accountable while also making it clear who should be targeted as potential backers. On the other side are those who contend that pragmatic politics should not be ignored, contending a failed vote would set back efforts to get the bill passed and send a bad message.
The tension was on display through the day, as some in the crowd shouted "Call the vote" while Harris spoke. Others took to the stage in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln's statue to declare they were prepared to vote out of office lawmakers who got in the way — including Harris.
Harris, a gay lawmaker who represents a North Side House district, acknowledged the divide but said the end goal was the same. He said he wasn't concerned about potential backlash at the polls, saying he's fighting for more than his personal political future.
"People can have their opinions on tactics and strategies all they want, but at the end of the day the issue here is about moving Illinois into the column of states that treats all of its families with equal dignity, strengthens our communities and puts us on the road promised by our forefathers to form a more perfect union," he said.
Harris continues to decline to divulge how many lawmakers are prepared to vote "yes" for the gay marriage bill or to discuss the possible timing of a vote. But Harris said his colleagues "should realize that they are going to have a chance to be a part of history."
Exactly when they'll get that chance is unclear. Lawmakers will start filing re-election paperwork at the end of November, so casting a vote for gay marriage now would leave a month or so for challengers opposed to it to gather enough signatures to get on the March primary ballot.
That's left some lawmakers suggesting that a vote should be delayed until after January, when they will know who they are running against. The lack of urgency looming over the General Assembly's fall session was underscored when lawmakers canceled Thursday's planned session.
While opponents of gay marriage plan a Wednesday demonstration at the Capitol, their presence was made known Tuesday when Springfield Bishop Thomas John Paprocki issued a statement declaring that gay rights advocates would not be allowed to enter a downtown church to pray for same-sex marriage, as they had planned.
Paprocki said the plan by demonstrators to pray for gay marriage amounted to blasphemy, but he noted that "our cathedral and parish churches are always open to everyone who wishes to repent their sins and ask for God's forgiveness."
Gov. Pat Quinn, a practicing Roman Catholic, has vowed to sign the gay marriage bill if it reaches his desk. He called Paprocki's stance "disappointing" and said he decided to support same-sex marriage against the teachings of the Catholic Church as a matter of "conscience."
"I believe everyone of faith should listen to their conscience, and I have in my case," Quinn said. "The time for marriage equality has come. This is our time. This is our moment."