Gov. Pat Quinn on Wednesday put his signature on a historic measure making Illinois the 16th state to allow same-sex marriage, capping a 40-year push for gay rights that picked up major momentum during the past decade.
Playing master of ceremonies during an hourlong event, the re-election-seeking Democratic governor slowly signed the bill with 100 pens that quickly became souvenirs. He did so at a desk shipped from Springfield that the administration said President Abraham Lincoln used to write his first inaugural address in 1861 — a speech on the cusp of the Civil War that called on Americans to heed "the better angels of our nature."
But it was another Lincoln speech that Quinn referenced as he spoke to about 2,300 supporters gathered at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"In the very beginning of the Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln of Illinois said that our nation was conceived in liberty. And he said it's dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, and that's really what we're celebrating today," he said. "It's a triumph of democracy."
Signs were banned for security reasons, but attendees shared celebratory kisses and waved miniature rainbow flags featuring the outline of Illinois.
Among the first in the door were Jan Arnold and Mary Anderson, of Oak Park, who brought their 8-year-old son to witness the bill-signing. The couple have been together for 15 years but said they got tired of waiting on Illinois to pass gay marriage and were legally married in Iowa in 2011.
Their union now will be recognized in Illinois, which Anderson said will free her family from second-class status and means they no longer have to carry a "dossier" of legal paperwork to prove their relationship should an emergency occur.
"We're finally safe and protected in our home state," Anderson said. "We'll have the same protections that our straight friends do."
The bill-signing illustrated the rapidly changing views in Illinois and the nation on gay rights. Supporters first introduced an anti-discrimination bill in the legislature in 1974. It didn't became law until 2005. It took an additional six years for civil unions to be approved, but only about half that time for the gay marriage measure.
Still, support for same-sex marriage is far from universal in Illinois. As politicians talked up the merits of gay marriage in Chicago, down in Springfield, a crowd gathered for an exorcism by the local Catholic bishop in protest of the governor's action.
"It is not the church that must change to confirm its teachings to the views of the world, but it is each individual who is called to be configured to Christ," Bishop Thomas Paprocki said during a service delivered mostly in Latin.
The new law changes the definition of marriage in Illinois from an act between a man and a woman to one between two people. Civil unions could be converted to marriages within a year of the law going on the books. About 6,500 applications for civil unions have been filed since 2011, with about 4,000 originating in Cook County.
As it stands, the bill won't take effect until June 1, which is when the first marriage ceremonies could take place. That date falls on a Sunday, but officials with Cook County Clerk David Orr's office said they will be ready for what they expect to be a huge demand. That includes the possibility of providing special waivers so couples don't have to wait until the day after receiving wedding licenses before they can be married.
The start date could be moved up under a measure backed by Sen. Don Harmon, a Democrat from Oak Park. If that bill is passed, gay marriage would go into effect immediately upon Quinn's signature. The measure could be called for a vote when lawmakers return to Springfield in the new year, though they face a light legislative schedule before the March 18 primary election.
Harmon said he's weighing whether it's fair to ask his colleagues to take another tough vote so soon after voting for gay marriage, acknowledging that a later effective date was the trade-off for passing the proposal this fall because a delay in implementation meant just 60 House votes were needed to pass the bill instead of 71.
But Harmon pointed to some gay advocates who died waiting for the right to marry, saying some people who want to take advantage of the new law might not be around in seven months. "I'd just hate to leave people poised on the precipice of equality be told they can't commit — yet," Harmon said.
The lag time did little to dampen spirits Wednesday, as supporters noted just how far Illinois has come in supporting gay rights in a relatively short time.
Casey Cameron, 38, who traveled from St. Elmo in southern Illinois, noted that just eight years ago gay people in Illinois were fighting for basic rights such as equal housing and employment opportunities. "It took a long time and a very tall mountain to get to that, and to finally see this is quite an amazing bit of accomplishment for the state," Cameron said.
The celebratory tone was a marked departure from late May, when the legislation stalled in the House after first passing the Senate on Valentine's Day. Supporters funneled their disappointment into action, launching a summerlong lobbying blitz that was soon buoyed by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman for the purpose of receiving federal benefits.
That helped sway about a dozen lawmakers who spent much of the summer undecided. Another nudge came from powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan, who personally lobbied some members to vote for the bill. Madigan, who represents a Southwest Side district, also is chairman of the state Democratic Party. That means he controls the purse strings to large chests of campaign money that could be vital should one of his members face a primary challenge over their decision to vote in favor of gay marriage.
On Wednesday, Madigan gave much of the credit to sponsoring Sen. Heather Steans and Rep. Greg Harris, both Chicago Democrats, who at one point faced protests from some gay rights advocates unhappy with the way Madigan was handling the bill. With Quinn's signature, Harris was able to shrug off much of those criticisms.
"We're here to celebrate family, commitment, equality, love, courage and community," Harris said, before taking a dig at conservative opposition. "Marriage is a family value."
Still, Harris and others noted that the bill would not have passed without the votes of three Republicans who broke ranks: Reps. Ed Sullivan of Mundelein, Ron Sandack of Downers Grove and Tom Cross of Oswego.
"It takes both parties to make something happen, and when we work together, look what we can do," said Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka. "I am available to be a flower girl, and I'll even waive the fee."
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle offered Topinka "kudos" before taking aim at the four Republican governor hopefuls.
"I'd like to point out that none, none of the Republican candidates for governor have been willing to stand up on this issue," she said.
Although the law would not force religious organizations to perform or host same-sex weddings, some faith groups contend it doesn't offer enough protections. They argue, for example, that they may be forced to provide health insurance to an employee's same-sex spouse.
Further, they contend it offers little in the way of protections for wedding photographers, bakers or other service providers who could face legal action for refusing to work for gay couples. Supporters argue that the benefits of the law outweigh those concerns.
Seth Hannan, 20, of Tremont in central Illinois, said the measure would give hope to gay teenagers facing adversity.
"I grew up in a very small, conservative school district. I was the first out kid in my school district, and I was teased a lot for who I was," Hannan said. "(This) normalizes it, it makes it more of an accepted thing and that will filter into the rest of society, so in 10 years that boy who was like me in high school won't have an issue."
Tribune reporter Ray Long contributed from Springfield.