CHICAGO -- A day after President Barack Obama endorsed equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn made it clear that he stands with the president on the politically divisive issue of marriage equality.
The governor signed a bill legalizing civil unions in Illinois last year but has long been vague about whether he supports same-sex marriage. On Thursday, a Quinn spokeswoman left no room for equivocation, expressing the governor's strongest stance on the issue since he ascended to the state's top office in 2009.
"Gov. Quinn joins with President Obama in supporting marriage equality and looks forward to working on this issue in the future with the General Assembly," Quinn spokeswoman Mica Matsoff said.
These words of political support resonate deeply in the gay and lesbian community -- many shed joyous tears when the president made his statement Wednesday -- but activists acknowledge that this historic moment will likely have little short-term effect on legislative attempts to legalize gay marriage in Illinois.
"The effect is largely psychological," said Bernard Cherkasov, chief executive officer of the gay and lesbian civil rights group Equality Illinois. "It levels the playing field for our community to say we have, at every level of public service, people who support marriage equality. But even the president himself recognized that this has to be done state by state."
Supporters of the gay marriage bill pending in the Illinois House aren't likely to call it for a vote before lawmakers are scheduled to go home May 31.
"I think we have a few other things on our plate, like pensions, health care, Medicaid, public safety, education, the state budget, and I think that's going to take all of our time and attention," said sponsoring Rep. Greg Harris, a Democrat.
Rick Garcia, director of the Equal Marriage Illinois project at The Civil Rights Agenda, put it more succinctly: "There has been a same-sex marriage bill out there since maybe 2006 in Springfield, and it's going nowhere fast."
If a vote were to happen, it likely wouldn't come until after the Nov. 6 election. The House and Senate will have a number of lame-duck lawmakers who are either retiring or lost re-election bids. They're more free to vote their conscience even if it diverges from the views of the people who elected them.
It's a time when long-stalled measures often get new life. After the November 2010 election, Illinois lawmakers voted to allow civil unions, ban the death penalty and raise the income tax rate by 67 percent.
Strategically, Garcia said gay rights activists in the state had no expectation that marriage rights would be politically palatable this soon after the civil unions law passed.
"Our plan was to pass civil unions and then let everybody who voted yes on civil unions get through their next election, which is this November," he said.
But as North Carolina residents made clear this week by voting for a constitutional ban on gay marriage, there remains strong political opposition.
GOP Sen. Tim Bivins said he would support a ban on same-sex marriage in Illinois.
"I believe marriage is between a man and a woman," Bivins said.
Sen. David Koehler, a Democrat who championed the state's civil unions law and supports same-sex marriage, said he thinks the president's support provides momentum for the issue but doesn't know when the measure will gain enough steam to pass.
"There will probably be an evolution that will take place and will determine this issue, and the time will be right at some point, but we'll just have to determine when that is," said Koehler, who is an ordained minister and has a lesbian daughter.
For Quinn, Obama's change in position made it easier to publicly support same-sex marriage.
During the 2010 governor's race, Quinn said he supported civil unions but dodged the marriage question. He has continued to offer vague answers since, even after signing Illinois' civil unions measure into law last year.
Asked on Valentine's Day if he would sign a gay marriage bill, Quinn said, "I haven't look at that yet; I'll take a look at it."
Soon after, Quinn told Chicago Public Radio that he looks "forward to working with the advocates on this issue to build a majority."
On Thursday, the day after Obama's declaration, the Quinn administration was clearer, saying explicitly that he supports "marriage equality." Spokeswoman Matsoff maintained that Quinn isn't changing his position because he had said before he wouldn't stand in the way if a gay marriage bill passed the General Assembly.
Outside the political arena, gay rights activists in some states have followed a judicial path to achieving same-sex marriage rights, claiming that civil unions -- by creating a second-class-citizen status -- violate equal protection and due process rights.
Camilla Taylor, senior staff attorney for the gay rights group Lambda Legal in Chicago, said there are currently no lawsuits in Illinois challenging the constitutionality of the state's civil unions law. But she said there have been a number of situations already in which "couples in civil unions are not being treated with the same respect as different-sex spouses."
She described Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage as "a watershed moment."
"Imagine being a child growing up understanding that because you're gender-non-conforming or you're gay or lesbian that you're different and your government tells you that you can never realize your dream of getting married," Taylor said. "And now your president has expressed full support for your equality and your humanity."
(Tribune reporter Monique Garcia contributed.)
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