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February 19, 2013

Civil rights, civic responsibilities

If same-sex marriage is to pass the Illinois House, supporters of equality can’t afford to sit on the sidelines.

Pushing forward controversial ideas is a decidedly unfashionable concept among politicians. Much stigma surrounds the advocacy of contentious public policies, particularly those that risk the sacrifice of all-important political capital. To no one’s surprise, popularly elected lawmakers are among the most unlikely to make that kind of gamble.

It is therefore the public’s responsibility to demand the passage of bills—and, in particular, controversial bills—that matter to it. In the absence of imminent constituent pressure, it’s tempting for politicians to assume that contentious but meretricious laws they may privately support can pass without their help, sparing them from having to besmirch their record with a controversial vote that could come back to haunt them later on. It’s no less tempting for us, as voters, to make similar assumptions—that is, to expect that good legislation should pass and subpar proposals should fail, and especially that these events will happen with or without our assistance.

Maryland certainly felt this way about same-sex marriage in the summer of 2011. Earlier that year, more than half of the state’s voters had reported supporting same-sex marriage. In light of its swift passage through the state’s Senate, its vocal backing from the state’s Governor, and the fact that 98 of the Maryland House of Representative’s 141 seats were held by Democrats, the passage of such a bill seemed natural—practically a lock. But when such a bill came up for a vote that summer, about a third of Maryland’s House Democrats voted against it. Needless to say, it failed.

The failure of Maryland’s Civil Marriage Protection Act tells us a lot about how powerful public awareness and opinion can be in determining the debate and action that surrounds any given issue. Though Maryland did ultimately legalize same-sex marriage, it finally did so through a referendum last November—a strong indicator that, had enough of the state’s voters been vocal and taken action the first time around, the bill would almost certainly have passed.

Illinois now finds itself in a very similar situation.

Sometime before the end of winter quarter, the Illinois House of Representatives is going to vote on the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, a bill to grant long-overdue legal recognition to same-sex marriages. Having passed the State Senate and earned the praise (and promised signature) of Governor Quinn, this bill’s future hinges—just as the equivalent legislation did in Maryland—on the vote of the State House of Representatives. If the bill passes that body, where Democrats hold 71 of the 118 seats, Illinois will become the seventh state to license same-sex marriages.

There are innumerable reasons to support this bill, among them that marriage is a fundamental human and civil right and that all people deserve equal protection under the law, regardless of their sexual orientation. Moreover, an opportunity like this might not come again for a while. Laws take time—it’s telling that the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, though initially introduced over a year ago, is only just now being voted on.

It is imperative that our state does not let this historic opportunity pass it by, and that we do not allow ourselves to repeat Maryland’s 2011 mistakes. If you are an Illinois state resident, I urge you to call your House Representative (who you can find on votesmart.org) and tell them that you’re a constituent who supports same-sex marriage. Better yet, whether you’re a state resident or not, you can volunteer at one of the handful of student-run, on-campus phone banks being held over the next two weeks. For a vote as uncertain as this one is bound to be, your support—even if for only half an hour—could make all the difference.

It’s tempting to assume that a bill like this will pass without your help; our friends in Maryland certainly thought so. But we cannot let marriage equality become the Kitty Genovese of Illinois’s undecided House of Representatives. If you believe in marriage equality and want to see it happen, you need to start making it happen as soon as possible. That means not two years from now—not even two weeks from now, since the vote could very well happen next week. That means right now.

Anastasia Golovashkina is a second-year in the College majoring in economics.

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