A year after gay couples gained the option of civil unions in Illinois, some lawmakers are beginning a push to authorize same-sex marriages.
Three legislators filed what they call the "Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act'' on Wednesday. The bill -- HB5170 -- would eliminate the part of state law that now explicitly prohibits gay marriages and would offer same-sex couples the marriage rights now exclusively available to heterosexual couples.
The measure also says religious groups will be free to decide which marriages they will perform.
Rep. Greg Harris, who was instrumental in getting civil unions approved last year, said he doesn't know whether gay marriage will get serious consideration during the Legislature's spring session. He predicted the new bill will trigger a period of lobbying to build support.
With gay marriage gaining ground across the country, he said, Illinois could consider it soon. Washington state is on the verge of approving gay marriage, New York did so last year and an appeals court just struck down a California ban on gay marriages.
"The numbers all tell the same story, that in the last year, for the first time, the majority of Americans believe in full marriage equality,'' said Harris, D-Chicago.
Lawmakers might be hesitant to support the legislation in an election year, and the measure is likely to trigger strong opposition from conservative groups.
"We're not bigots for trying to hold the line on our religious beliefs, and that will be a concern in this fall's elections," said Fran Eaton, editor of conservative website Illinois Review.
Eaton said sponsors of the gay marriage bill may be setting the stage for a vote before new lawmakers are seated. Civil unions were approved during the same kind of ``lame duck'' period.
The gay rights group Equality Illinois said that legalizing civil unions were a step forward, but remain a poor substitute for same-sex marriage.
"Separate is not equal," said the group's CEO, Bernard Cherkasov.