CHICAGO | Advocates of same-sex marriage in Illinois turned up the pressure on state lawmakers Thursday as a group of black Chicago-area clergy members cast their support, calling it a bold step forward for equality — even in the face of potential backlash from colleagues and congregants.
Their message was geared toward those who've been reluctant to endorse legislation legalizing gay marriage, including black lawmakers, and came as another group of prominent black pastors from Chicago mega-churches launched an aggressive opposition campaign.
Pastors from suburban and urban churches, some small and already liberal in their views, backed the measure Thursday; one is openly lesbian. Several of them acknowledged the difficulty in supporting gay marriage professionally, and one said his church still wouldn't allow him to perform same-sex marriages even if the law allowed it. They said they endorsed it as a matter of equal legal rights and the next step in the struggle for civil rights.
"We're all taking a risk by openly endorsing this bill, but I happened to know there are hundreds of pastors who cannot put themselves in this vulnerable position," said the Rev. Carlton Pearson, who was once one of the leading Pentecostal ministers nationwide until he began teaching that everyone goes to heaven, including gay people. The move angered many and he now runs his own church, New Dimensions Chicago.
Legislation granting same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual ones has passed the Illinois Senate, but faces a tough vote in the House, where it needs 60 votes. House Speaker Michael Madigan has estimated the measure is a dozen votes shy. A key sponsor and advocates say the number is less.
Lawmakers and advocates have been vague on exactly whose support they're targeting, but both sides have become more vocal in recent weeks in anticipation of a vote sometime this month. Most recently, the focus has zeroed in on groups whose votes are likely difficult to get, suburban Republicans and the 20 black House members. All are Democrats and mostly from the Chicago area, but several still are undecided.
Messages left for a half-dozen legislators Thursday were not immediately returned.
Last month, prominent pastors of several black Chicago churches launched their opposition with 60-second commercials on black radio stations. The group, called the African American Clergy Coalition, includes former state senator the Rev. James Meeks, senior pastor of Salem Baptist Church of Chicago.
The group was scheduled to meet Friday with Cardinal Francis George, who also opposes same-sex marriage on moral grounds. George is the head of the Archdiocese of Chicago, which serves more than 2 million Roman Catholics.
In one ad, Bishop Larry Trotter of Chicago's Sweet Holy Spirit, which has some 9,000 members, tells listeners to urge lawmakers to vote no on the bill.
"I, too, am opposed to same sex marriage as you and every Christian should be," he says. "Marriage was the first institution created by our God. He tells us in the word that marriage should be between a man and a woman and not those of the same sex."
Pastors at Thursday's event countered religious arguments by playing up legal and civil rights.
"This is about equality and justice. This is a matter of equal protection under the law for all citizens. This is not a religious issue." said the Rev. Richard Tolliver of St. Edmund's Episcopal Church in Chicago. "Nothing in your church will change."
The legislation says that religious institutions can't be forced into performing ceremonies.
Advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, have pushed a diverse and intense campaign for months, calling on Hollywood celebrities, businesses, congressional leaders and lawmakers. They say opinions on the matter are rapidly shifting and point to U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, the second sitting Republican senator to recently step forward in support of gay marriage.
"We're really close, certainly within striking distance," said Bernard Cherkasov, the head of Equality Illinois, who noted the group was focusing efforts on black and Latino caucuses. "This is going to be a strong bipartisan vote. "
He said Kirk's support would resonate with moderate Republicans.
Gov. Pat Quinn, a Chicago Democrat, has said he would sign the legislation if it comes to his desk. It would make Illinois the 10th state in the nation to allow same-sex marriage. The state approved civil unions in 2011.