Illinois became the 16th state to legalize gay marriage when Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed a long-awaited—and hotly debated—bill into law on Wednesday.
The bill passed the General Assembly on Nov. 5, after months of lobbying by gay rights activists and opponents of the measure.
The new reality of gay marriage is prompting both hope and concern for the future among Illinoisans.
When Bill Kelley first moved here from Missouri as a teenager in 1959, Illinois was a very different place for gay men such as him. Gay sex then was illegal, though Illinois three years later would become the first state to repeal its sodomy laws.
Kelley says the Sexual Revolution and the civil rights movement of that era also let gays and lesbians feel freer. He went on to become an established gay rights activist in the years that followed.
But looking back, the 71-year-old says those changes took root over decades. So Kelley is not expecting any additional major cultural shifts as gay marriage becomes Illinois law.
"The change in law seldom marks any abrupt change in society,” Kelley said. “Usually changes in laws follow changes in society as much as they provoke them."
Chen Ooi, Kelley’s partner of 34 years, was more emotional in describing his reaction to the breakthrough on gay marriage. The 61-year-old choked back tears when he recalled how he felt when he learned the bill was approved by the legislature earlier this month, after many fits and starts.
“It’s [a] civil right,” Ooi said. “It’s right to love each other. And yet, it took so long to fight for it.”
Kelley and Ooi don’t have a civil union under the law, enacted in 2011, that guaranteed same-sex couples some partnership rights short of marriage. And they say they aren’t sure about getting married even though it will now be legal for them to do so.
That’s because they’ve organized their entire lives—finances, estates, health care decisions—all based on the idea that marriage was impossible, Ooi said.
Whatever they decide, Kelley says legalizing gay marriage is an important step in changing how people will think about same-sex couples.
Kelley compared the change to the stance many people took on the federal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that, from 1993 to 2011, allowed gays to serve in the military but required them to remain closeted. This was replaced by the current law that allows gay people to serve in the military openly.
"People who didn’t want to join the Army were in favor of repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Kelley said. “So it has an impact broader than just the impact that it has on couples like us.”
That broader impact is exactly what worries some who oppose the legalizaton of gay marriage.
"Freedom of speech is gone, freedom of religion is gone. And truly, that is what is being eroded," said Pastor Pat McManus, who heads the non-denominational Kingdom Impact Center in suburban Aurora.
McManus is in the process of changing his church’s bylaws to make it clear he will not perform gay marriages. He says he does not trust the provision in Illinois’ same-sex marriage measure that already says churches can’t be forced to marry gay couples.
“[I] don’t believe what they say. ... I believe that’ll change down the road. Because once everything begins to start, it’s gonna begin to erode all the way down,” McManus said.
McManus says laws have been changing so quickly that he worries one day he will not be allowed to preach his belief that homosexuality is a sin.
Despite the bill’s language, McManus says he’s talked to a few other pastors who are also changing their bylaws, just in case they ever get sued for refusing to officiate a gay wedding.
It’s difficult to know exactly how many Illinois churches are taking that step.
But attorney Rich Baker, who works at a socially conservative Chicago law firm, says he has helped a handful make similar changes, because the bill’s religious protections are not strong enough.
"I think the effect of that really is to say that we will give you freedom of worship within your four walls, but the Gospel outside of the four walls is not welcome," Baker said.
Baker points out that the bill’s religious protection clause does not apply to “businesses, health care facilities, educational facilities, or social service agencies,” and thus could leave them open to lawsuits.
He points to a recent case in New Mexico, where the state Supreme Court ruled against a photographer who refused to take pictures of a same-sex wedding, based on her Christian faith.
In April, Bob Ferguson, the Democratic attorney general in the state of Washington, sued a florist who refused to sell flowers for a gay couple’s wedding.
Baker contended that gay rights activists in Illinois have been moving the goalposts since civil unions became legal.
"We were told at that time, that’s all that was wanted, that’s all that was needed. That was only two years ago,” Baker said. “And now we’re told that, you know, it must be marriage. What will it be next?"
Exactly what’s next in the parallel fights for religious rights and gay rights could become clearer after June 1, when Illinois counties can begin issuing their first marriage licenses to gay couples.