Civil rights issue where states lead the fight

Mon. February 18, 2013 12:00 AM
by Feature Column

By Dean J. Argiris

On Valentine's day, the Illinois State Senate passed the SB 10, the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, by a 34-21-2 vote. The vote was almost along straight party lines, except for several downstate (and thus more conservative) Democrats voting either against it or not casting a vote. Currently, it has been referred to the House Rules Committee and picked up by Representative Greg Harris, a leader on same sex issues in the Illinois House. There is no anticipation that the bill will not reach Governor Quinn's desk for his signature.

Once signed into law, Illinois would become one of only nine states that affirms the concept of equal protection under the law for individuals and family members of same sex or differing sex couples. Typically, we look to Washington to be the 'leader' of social progress and with recent statements by President Obama at his public inauguration and State of the Union, we continue to think such. However, the states are going to be the front lines for the advancement of same sex marriage throughout the Union.

Congress is too volatile, with Republican filibusters in the Senate and a Republican majority in the House any federal level legislation will be difficult to pass. Much of what President Obama has done thus far in advancing equal rights causes has been done either through Executive Directives or while there were Democratic majorities in Congress. Thus, if there is any progress to be had it's going to be done in the State Legislatures.

On the right, the Facebook pages of conservative state legislators have been ablaze with comments about preserving Biblical order in Illinois. The truth of the matter is that SB 10 preserves the right of all religious institutions to practice their sacraments as doctrine or leadership allows. This bill only maximizes choice, which is essential to any democracy built around freedom.

However, I think that the problem with preserving the sanctity of marriage doesn't rest in SB10 or any bill that promotes same sex marriage. Three weeks ago, I went to a pre-marriage counseling session with my fiancé. Our priest informed the group that the divorce rate in the United States was 49%; it rises to 67% when we talk about individuals entering into their second marriage. These numbers aren't arbitrary either. There is actual statistical data that confirms these numbers.

Professor Andrew Cherlin of John Hopkins University hypothesizes that the reason for this are two conflicting American ideals; individualism and marriage. All around us we are inundated with heterosexual couples destroying the sanctity of marriage. Therefore, it seems rather unfair to claim same sex marriage would destroy the institution's sanctity when it's already being destroyed since the mid to late 1960's, when divorce rates began their sharp climb upward.

As it stands, it looks like marriage equality will become law in Illinois. However, advocacy groups and individuals should be wary of focusing all their energies on enacting reforms in Washington. Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania and Ohio helped retain Republican control of the House, meaning federal legislation for LGBT issues is an uphill battle. Thus, attention needs to be focused on the State Legislatures. In states like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin where same sex marriages are banned via their constitution, a constitutional amendment would be needed. In states like Pennsylvania and Minnesota, it requires changing existing statutes.

This is the civil rights issue of our generation but unlike the 1950's and the 1960's where the federal government was the agent of change; it will be the states leading this fight. This is where LGBT advocates and supporters will need to place their energies.


Dean Argiris is a Democratic political consultant and owner of the Argiris Consulting Group. Prior to starting his own consulting business, he served as a Regional Field Director in Southeastern Pennsylvania during the 2010 midterm for President Obama's "Organizing for America" during the 2010, and as a political staffer for the Illinois Senate Democrats. He has been a longtime supporter of marriage equality.