SPRINGFIELD | Activists and supporters frustrated that Illinois still hasn't legalized same-sex marriages demanded swift action during a rally Tuesday at the state Capitol, as lawmakers returned to Springfield to deal with several other weighty issues.
Five months after the legislation stalled in the Illinois House, an estimated 3,000 turned out for the "March on Springfield," with many waving signs and flags. Also present were some of the state's top elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka and Gov. Pat Quinn.
"This is our hour, this is our moment," Quinn, a Chicago Democrat, said while describing the legislation as the "most important civil rights measure" facing the state.
Legislators returned to work with the potential for several hefty issues on the agenda, including ending gridlock on the state's nearly $100 billion pension problem, mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes and incentives for companies to stay in Illinois.
But on Tuesday, activists' focus remained on the gay marriage issue. Those who oppose it — including mega churches in the Chicago area — vowed to protest the issue in Springfield on Wednesday, starting with a prayer vigil.
"We in the last couple years have come to understand and appreciate how the Legislature works," said Tim Kee, of Marion. Kee and his longtime partner, Rick Wade, are two plaintiffs in a pending gay marriage suit in Cook County Circuit Court.
"We'd rather this not go through (yet) instead of fail," Kee said.
Still, others, including Jeffrey Smith of Chicago, said they've been "profoundly disappointed" by the House's failure to bring the measure up for a vote.
Earlier in the year, a same sex marriage bill passed the state Senate but stalled in the House, where it needs 60 votes for passage — 71 to be effective immediately. House Speaker Michael Madigan said in late September that about a dozen votes were still needed.
The bill's main sponsor, Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat, has been mum on the vote count or when the matter is expected for a vote.
"I'm keeping an open mind," he said, of the issue coming up during the veto session.
Meanwhile, advocates have said there's been significant progress. Activists and gay rights groups revamped their campaign by hiring a top union lobbyist, organizers across the state and the former chairman of the Illinois Republican Party.
"We're within striking distance, but I'm not making a prediction because were promised this was going to happen in May," said Chicago gay marriage advocate Rick Garcia. He estimated there were about 55 "yes" votes, coming from various sectors of the chamber.
Not in attendance at Tuesday's rally was Madigan, who supports the measure but has yet to have the bill called in his chamber.
"Speaker Madigan, put your House in order," one sign at the rally read.
Jim Durkin, the new House GOP leader, said the described the issue as an "individual district-specific vote, not a caucus issue."
"I don't think we need to spend too much more time on it," Durkin said. "Everyone knows where they're going to be."
Still, the vote in the end may come down to timing. Those challenging sitting lawmakers in the March primary have until early December to file election paperwork, making putting off such a controversial vote a politically safer choice.
Illinois allowed civil unions in 2011 — a measure passed by a lame-duck Legislature following the November 2010 election. There are now 14 states, plus Washington D.C., that allow gay marriage.
However, the measure has been fought hard by church groups, notably high-profile pastors around Chicago who argue that marriage should remain between a man and a woman.