SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - As gay rights activists prayed and held hands in the chamber's balcony, the Illinois House approved a bill yesterday guaranteeing equal rights for gays and lesbians, prompting the Legislature's sole openly gay lawmaker to tearfully proclaim his colleagues had chosen to be on "the right side of history."
The surprisingly strong 65-51 vote came after a chorus of appeals from several black lawmakers, who compared the import of the moment to the civil rights era and called upon other representatives to end modern-day discrimination. A dozen Republicans joined the Democratic majority to pass the measure.
The historic vote puts Illinois in position to become the fifteenth state to outlaw discrimination against gays and lesbians by landlords, realtors, employers and lenders. Once the measure becomes law, the state will become only the fifth in the nation to extend protections to transgendered people, or those whose gender identity is not "traditionally associated with their designated sex at birth."
Declaring the measure a "fundamental civil rights" bill, Democratic Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich immediately pledged to sign it.
"Illinois will no longer tolerate discriminating against someone based on his or her sexual orientation," said the governor, who had lobbied for the bill alongside his sister-in-law, gay activist Deborah Mell.
The action came in stark contrast to the doom-and-gloom predictions that political pundits had issued for the gay rights movement in the wake of the November elections. While 11 other states have recently defeated initiatives to approve same-sex unions, Illinois lawmakers have been careful to draw a distinction between sanctioning gay marriage and protecting basic civil rights.
"I think people looked at it and decided it was a pretty uncontroversial idea," said state Rep. Larry McKeon, a Democrat and the General Assembly's only openly gay lawmaker. "This is a law that treats everyone the same. That's really no big deal."
Yet even as veteran activists congratulated one another jubilantly in the Capitol rotunda, the passage of the bill drew an angry response from religious conservatives who say the measure is anything but innocuous. Decrying the measure as a strike against their religious freedom, opponents promised that there would be a legal challenge to the pending change to the Illinois Human Rights Act.
"We're not going to sit down on this," said Ralph Rivera, a lobbyist for the organization Family-Pac in the Statehouse.
For religious conservatives, the fear is that the gay-rights movement will use the new law to press for such things as same-sex marriage or insurance coverage for same-sex partners. That, they say, is what happened after Massachusetts passed a similar law protecting gay rights.
Though lawmakers in that state specifically said within the gay-rights law that it shouldn't be construed "to legitimize or validate a homosexual marriage," the Massachusetts high court cited the statute in a 2003 opinion that said gays and lesbians could enter into civil unions.
Among many other factors, the court said, the state law helped demonstrate that "Massachusetts has a strong affirmative policy of preventing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation."
Similarly, the Illinois legislature might have paved the way for other changes, contends state Sen. Peter Roskam, a Republican.
Roskam, a lawyer, said he believes the Illinois measure could require churches that explicitly disapprove of homosexuality to hire gays and lesbians.
Gay rights activists and authors of the bill say that's not the case. Although Roskam interprets it differently, lawyers for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force contend that current state law already exempts churches from the requirements of other employers in the state.
The new law won't require a church that finds homosexuality sinful to hire a gay choir director, according to Matt Foreman, executive director of the D.C.-based task force and a lawyer who analyzes gay rights legislation around the country.
"These are illusory threats," Foreman said. "Churches are exempt under the law."
In an attempt to fight those arguments, clergy members who support the gay rights law were busy calling and visiting lawmakers yesterday morning.
The Rev. Jennifer Kottler, a Disciples of Christ minister and director of education and outreach for Protestants for the Common Good, said she urged lawmakers of faith to be mindful of modern history.
"Let us be reminded that, not too long ago, religious people invoked God and the Holy Scriptures to oppose the abolition of slavery, to oppose the right of women to vote and to oppose the racial integration of schools," said Kottler.
Sister Rose Mary Meyer, a member of the religious order Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Chicago, asked lawmakers to consider the issue from a "Christian perspective."
"We have many stories in the Gospels in which Jesus speaks about being inclusive," said Meyer. "His actions were inclusive. The dignity of a person was significant, and this has been important in the social teachings of the Catholic Church for years."
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