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Illinois lawmakers approve same-sex marriage in key vote

Seth Perlman/AP

Supporters of same-sex marriage legislation rally in the rotunda at the Illinois State Capitol on Tuesday in Springfield Ill. The state could become the 15th to allow gay marriage.

The Illinois General Assembly approved a bill on Tuesday to allow gays and lesbians to marry in the Land of Lincoln, opening the path for the state to become the 15th to allow same-sex marriage.

The vote capped a months-long wait for a ballot on the measure while gay marriage advocates worked on getting the support needed to pass the legislation. The House of Representatives, where the bill stalled earlier this year after the Senate passed it, approved the legislation, 61-54. 

“Today, the Illinois House put our state on the right side of history,” said Gov. Pat Quinn, who has long vowed to sign the legislation. 

The measure had to return to the Senate since the House added an amendment to make June 1 the effective date of the legislation — rather than 30 days after Quinn signs it. The Senate quickly endorsed the bill after the House vote.

After the ballot, the White House tweeted: "RT if you agree that every American should have the freedom to marry who they love."

Illinois is poised to become the 15th state nationwide to allow same-sex marriage and join two of its Midwest neighbors – Iowa and Minnesota – in granting gay couples the right to wed. The District of Columbia allows gay marriage, too.

The vote comes two weeks after same-sex marriages began in New Jersey, where the state dropped its legal appeal to prohibit the weddings, and comes ahead of a similar ballot in Hawaii. 

Rep. Greg Harris, a primary sponsor of the bill from Chicago who is openly gay, announced last May that he wouldn't call a vote on the legislation since he wasn’t sure it had enough support for approval, The Advocate reported

Religious leaders who opposed the legislation said it didn’t adequately protect their rights, according to the Chicago Tribune. The bill stipulates that religious denominations or American Indian groupings were free to decide those marriages it would solemnize and would not be required to provide facilities for wedding ceremonies.

Some undecided Democratic lawmakers announced in the last week that they would vote in favor of the bill – including one who said she was assured that the rights of the religious community would be respected.

“The extension of equal rights to citizens currently denied them does not come at the cost of diminishing the rights of others," State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth wrote in an op-ed. "As a person of faith, this point is crucial to me, as some have wrongly contended that churches that do not wish to consecrate the unions of same gender couples will be forced to do so or face legal consequences, including the loss of their tax-exempt status. This is absolutely false.” 

The Thomas More Society, which opposes same-sex marriage and fought against the legislation in Illinois, said it was disappointed in the outcome but reassured that lawmakers affirmed religious liberty during the House debate.

"We will do our part to insure that those fundamental religious liberties are given robust and unstinting protection,” Tom Brejcha, the society’s president and chief counsel, said in a statement. 

Couples who had previously joined in civil unions, which were approved in the state in 2010 and began in mid-2011, will be able to have that legal relationship converted into marriage. They have one year to make the change, and typical marriage fees will be waived, according to the legislation.

Courtesy Dennis Henry

Dennis Henry, center, marries Larry Shaw, right, as David Binegar, an attorney from Iowa, officiates their wedding ceremony in Iowa on Tuesday.

The vote gave Larry Shaw, 67, and Dennis Henry, a couple of 35 years from Monmouth, Ill., a second reason to toast on Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, they’d finally tied the knot in neighboring Iowa, thinking they couldn’t continue to lose out on federal benefits, such as spousal social security. The pair had for years regretted their decision to settle in Illinois, where Shaw is from, rather than Iowa, where Henry is from and same-sex marriage became legal in 2009.

“In the back of my mind I kept thinking … I’d like to see a little miracle today and just see this pass,” said Henry, 65.

The feeling is “just freedom and maybe it sounds, I don’t know, melodramatic but you just feel like a full-fledged American citizen,” he said. “You just feel affirmed and everything. It’s just one heck of a good feeling, it really is.” 

“It helps validate us as full citizens and it’s about time,” said Shaw. “It is something that neither one of us ever thought we’d see in our lifetime.”

The vote coming on their wedding day “makes it a little bit more special,” he added.

Thirty-four states, excluding Illinois, prohibit same-sex marriage. Many of those state bans also face legal challenges, with nearly 30 lawsuits filed across the country after two Supreme Court decisions in the summer that favored gay marriage rights. 

Are you part of a same-sex couple hoping to get married but living in a state where you cannot do so? If so, please email reporter Miranda Leitsinger at miranda.leitsinger@nbcuni.com. Also note if your comments can be used and provide a telephone number.