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Gay marriage shapes up as election issue
By Christi Parsons and John Chase, Tribune staff reporters. Tribune staff reporters Tim Jones and Maura Possley contributed to this report
Published May 9, 2006
SPRINGFIELD -- Kicking off a symbolic campaign against gay marriage, conservative groups filed petitions Monday calling for a statewide vote to change the Illinois Constitution to define marriage as a relationship between "one man and one woman."
Gov. Rod Blagojevich took a different political stand on the rights of same-sex couples Monday by extending benefits to the domestic partners of most state employees.
In a preview of the political battles to come, leaders of the Protect Marriage movement said actions like the governor's make it more important than ever to officially affirm the tenets of traditional marriage.
The result of the referendum they hope to place on the November ballot would only be advisory, but conservative leaders believe the results would send a clear message to the Illinois General Assembly to let voters cast a binding vote on the question in the future.
Acknowledging that state law already defines marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman, a spokesman for the organization Protect Marriage Illinois said a constitutional amendment is a more permanent way to protect the institution of marriage from the "infection" of same-sex unions.
But the petition drive to place the question on the ballot also is an effort at grass-roots building at a time when Illinois conservatives are recovering from electoral losses, most recently the Republican nomination of moderate state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka to run for governor against Democrat Blagojevich this fall.
Supporters say the petition drive already has beefed up their database of voters friendly to their cause--a success for conservatives even if they don't actually have enough valid signatures to fend off attempts by opponents to keep the question off the ballot.
Ironically, the referendum effort by the conservative groups could actually end up helping Topinka. Despite her opposition to same-sex marriage, Topinka is already perceived as gay-friendly by many for her early support of the state's new gay-rights law. A hot-button gay-marriage question on the ballot could potentially draw to the polls more conservatives likely to vote Republican as long as they're there.
"The conversation needs to start in Illinois," said Cathy Santos, spokeswoman for the Family Taxpayers Network, which helped lead the drive. "We need to start this debate. This is the very beginning of a conversation that I think obviously Illinois residents want to have."
Eighteen states have constitutional amendments that explicitly bar recognition of same-sex marriage and more than 40 states, including Illinois, have statutes that limit marriage to opposite-sex couples.
In contrast, Massachusetts explicitly recognizes same-sex marriage. And California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey and Vermont grant people in same-sex unions a legal status similar to that of married heterosexual couples.
While the ballot measures had the effect of mobilizing many conservative voters in 2004, post-election analyses showed support for the bans cut across party, racial and ethnic lines. And evidence that gay-marriage bans increased voter turnout varied from state to state, studies showed.
In Illinois, the Protect Marriage groups have tried but failed to get state lawmakers to put the question on the ballot. In order to get the advisory question on the ballot, petitioners need to have just more than 283,000 valid signatures from Illinois voters.
Protect Marriage representatives said they filed nearly 345,200 signatures before Monday's deadline, significantly short of their 500,000 goal. Still, group leaders predict the signatures will hold up to scrutiny under a promised challenge from opponents.
The measure filed Monday calls for a change to the Illinois Constitution that would state that "a marriage between a man and a woman is the only legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state." If passed, the referendum would advise the General Assembly to submit the amendment to voters for consideration at the next general election. State lawmakers are free to disregard an advisory referendum.
Blagojevich said he thinks putting the question on the ballot is unnecessary and even harmful.
"[T]hese are the kinds of sort of divisive issues that the right-wing political practitioners bring to the table," Blagojevich said. "It has less to do with the merits and everything to do with the politics of division."
The administrative order that Blagojevich signed Monday means that starting in July, same-sex domestic partners will be eligible for the same health benefits that married employees receive. The governor's action extends to managers and other employees not covered by the contract of the largest state employees union, which negotiated domestic partner benefits a year ago.
But the benefits only apply to the agencies that answer to the governor. In order for their workers to be eligible, Topinka and the other constitutional officers would have to opt into the program, aides to the governor said.
A spokesman for Topinka said she made a commitment in the campaign that there will be no expansion of benefits for anyone "until we get the state's budget nightmare under control." Topinka said she opposes the constitutional amendment because state law already bans same-sex marriage.
David E. Smith, project director for Protect Marriage Illinois and senior policy analyst for the conservative Illinois Family Institute, said he thinks state officials should take a leadership role in the cause.
"This is an infection that is dangerous to the absolute institution of marriage," Smith said. "Government policy shouldn't be promoting or protecting a dangerous and unhealthy lifestyle and it shouldn't be promoting something that is not normal."