Supporters of civil unions scrambled Monday to line up the final votes they need in the Illinois House, while opponents worked just as hard to block the measure in a lobbying duel that features competing religious leaders, constituent calls and e-mail blitzes.
"They have a full-court press on, and we have a full-court press, too," said David E. Smith, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute.
Civil unions would provide legal recognition of gay couples and give them some of the same benefits automatically available to married couples -- the right to visit a sick partner in the hospital and make decisions about their medical care, for instance. Backers consider it a matter of fundamental fairness, but critics argue it would amount to gay marriage under another name.
The bill could hit the Illinois House floor this week.
Supporters say they're close to having the 60 votes needed to pass the measure in the House. If it passes there, backers think the Senate quickly would follow suit and Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn would sign it into law.
"I do think this is the time for Illinois to do this," Quinn said Monday. "This is a good way to show employers -- big businesses all across the country -- that Illinois treats everyone with tolerance.''
Opponents are fighting to make sure the legislation fails.
Smith said the Family Institute has made hundreds of thousands of automated calls to voters in recent months, urging them to contact their legislators. The group has sent bulletins on the subject to hundreds of Illinois churches, and Smith said he is lobbying lawmakers directly. Along with other conservative organizations, the institute is sending e-mails to everyone on its lists to call for action against civil unions.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Conference of Illinois is fighting the legislation, too. It's urging Catholic churches across Illinois to speak out, said Executive Director Robert Gilligan, and bishops are contacting lawmakers to speak against the measure.
"Marriage is what it is and always has been, no matter what a legislature decides to do," Chicago Cardinal Francis George said in a statement last week.
Rick Garcia, director of public policy for Equality Illinois, rejects the argument that civil unions are simply a form of gay marriage. He's also trying to make sure the public knows that religious leaders aren't uniformly against the measure. He says 25 ministers, nuns and rabbis who support civil unions will appear at a news conference Tuesday and will discuss a letter of support signed by some 300 other religious leaders.
"We can't just allow a few hard-right, anti-gay people to use the name of religion," Garcia said.
Garcia's group and other supporters are sending out their own e-mail alerts and arranging for constituents to call and write their legislators. Garcia and the measure's sponsor, Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, are lobbying lawmakers, as is the governor.
Opponents make several arguments against civil unions.
Some say it's simply wrong.
"It's not legitimate for the government to recognize the relationship of homosexual partners or polygamous partners or incestuous partners," Smith said.
They also warn the legislation could hurt religious institutions, even though its official name is the "Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act." The measure wouldn't require churches to recognize civil unions or perform any kind of ceremony, opponents acknowledge, but they fear it would lead to other requirements, such as including same-sex couples in adoption programs run by religious groups or granting benefits to employees' partners.
Opponents also see the measure as an attempt to change the definition of marriage. They note it says civil partners will have the same rights and responsibilities that Illinois grants to spouses, and that civil partners will be included in the legal definition of "spouse."
"The law shapes society and this is going to, we feel, reshape society in a way we don't agree with," Gilligan said.
Garcia and Harris rejected each of those arguments, labeling them scare tactics.
"I think it's easier to instill fear in people than it is to instill hope," Harris said.
They said even if civil unions are approved, Illinois law still would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Illinois civil unions would not be recognized in some states or by the federal government for tax purposes. Noting five states and the District of Columbia already offer civil unions, they dismissed fears it would interfere with religious institutions or affect marriage in any way.
"We think it's just the fair and decent thing to do,'' Garcia said. "It isn't scary. It's happening all over."
Chicago mayoral candidates Gery Chico, Rahm Emanuel, Miguel del Valle and Carol Moseley Braun have expressed support of civil unions and the bill.