Equality advocates rally ahead of sessions in Illinois, Hawaii

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Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

Marriage equality advocates in Hawaii and Illinois are turning out for days of action as their state lawmakers prepare for days of debate.

In Hawaii, Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie called a special session of the Legislature to take up his marriage equality bill. “The decision to call a special session is based on doing what is right to create equity for all in Hawaii,” the governor said.

In Illinois, lawmakers will gather at the Capitol in Springfield for a few days this month and again next month for a fall veto session that could include consideration of marriage equality legislation. A bill passed the Senate on Valentine’s Day and has the support of Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, but the measure was not called in the House in the final hours of the regular session on May 31.

Openly gay state Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, with tears in his eyes, said that night on the floor, “Several of my colleagues have indicated they’d not be willing to cast a vote on this bill today. And I’ve never been sadder to accept this request, but I have to keep my eye, as we all must, on the ultimate prize. They’ve asked for time to go back to their districts, talk to their constituents and reach out to their minds and hearts and have told me they’ll return in November with their word that they’re prepared to support this legislation. And I take my colleagues at their word they shall.”

Throughout the summer, equality advocates lobbied lawmakers, as well as sought out support from citizens, businesses, clergy and others from Freeport to Cairo through the Illinois Unites for Marriage coalition.

The action continues this month, with volunteers staffing phone banks, knocking on doors and joining up for the March on Springfield set for Oct. 22, the first day of the veto session.

Still, it remains unclear whether sponsors have the 60 votes needed for passage in the House. The count, as well as a pension crisis, has led to speculation the equality bill could be pushed back to 2014.

Meanwhile, there was certainty that marriage equality legislation would be addressed during the special session in Hawaii – that’s the sole purpose of the gathering that begins on Oct. 28.

What’s not certain is the vote count.

“Some of my colleagues just don’t know how they’re going to vote in special session,” said state Rep. Chris Lee, who is an equality advocate working with the Hawaii United for Marriage effort. “Here’s what I can tell you from talking with some of my undecided colleagues: The only way we’ll convince them to vote for marriage equality is by mobilizing thousands of constituents in their districts to make phone calls, write letters and share why marriage personally matters to them.”

Those phone-banking operations and letter-writing campaigns are taking place, as are community forums.

Lawmakers and religious leaders also have been meeting to work on the language for the provision that would exempt religious institutions from being required to host same-sex weddings.

In both Illinois and Hawaii, same-sex couples can enter into civil unions, which means they can access many state benefits associated with marriage but not the more than 1,000 rights and benefits associated with marriage at the federal level.

Same-sex couples can marry in 13 states and the District of Columbia.

In the courts

A landmark case out of Virginia — Loving v. Virginia — clearly established that the ability to marry the person you love is a fundamental right, says David Boies. 

And Virginia is where Boies and Theodore Olson, the attorneys in the successful campaign to overturn California’s Proposition 8, are waging their next fight for same-sex marriage rights. The two recently joined the legal push to overturn the state’s constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The federal case was filed earlier this year on behalf of two same-sex couples seeking marriage equality in the state.

Meanwhile, in neighboring West Virginia, Lambda Legal has sued on behalf of three couples seeking the freedom to marry. Lambda is arguing that the state’s ban is discriminatory and makes same-sex couples second-class citizens.

Lawsuits for marriage equality are before courts in at least 19 states, including in New Mexico, where the state Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on the issue on Oct. 23.

Same-sex couples can marry in 14 states and the District of Columbia. Oregon officials said last week that the state would recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages and New Jersey same-sex couples began marrying in the state on Oct. 21.

– L.N.