CHICAGO — African-American political, community, business and religious leaders came out in favor of same-sex marriage as a key vote on the issue approached in the General Assembly.
A letter in support of the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act being considered during the legislature's lame-duck session was signed by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, former state Senate President Emil Jones, Chicago Urban League President and Board of Education member Andrea Zopp, Johnson Publishing Chief Executive Officer Desiree Rogers and the Rev. Dr. Richard Tolliver, rector of St. Edmund's Episcopal Church in Woodlawn, among others.
“Gay and lesbian couples deserve full recognition of their relationships, which only marriage can provide,” Preckwinkle said. “Couples who are in loving, committed relationships should be treated equally in the eye of the law.”
"I think it's about time," Tolliver said. "Black voters support this."
That hasn't always been the case, at least among some influential members of the community. In 1988, African-American religious leaders protested the city's gay-rights ordinance.
"The African-American community is — on social issues — a lot more conservative than people have perceived it to be," said state Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago), who supports the bill.
Yet Tolliver pointed to new figures amassed by Public Policy Polling showing that 60 percent of African-Americans support gay marriage, against 16 percent opposed.
"The black community, as statistics have shown, like the white community, has evolved on this issue," Tolliver said. "Since President Obama came out in favor of marriage equality, the percentage of support for this issue in the African-American community has accelerated significantly."
The president formally endorsed same-sex marriage during last year's presidential campaign and last weekend issued a statement saying that, if he were still an Illinois state senator, he would vote for the Marriage Fairness Act in Springfield.
"It's bold leadership," Tolliver said, "but it's also the psychological and social readiness to receive this idea and accept it."
"I don't want anybody to think the African-American community is monolithic in lockstep with whatever President Obama says," Raoul said. "But it has an influence, no doubt."
The Hyde Park senator added that it's at base a civil-rights issue, an argument he expected to resonate with the African-American community and the legislature's Black Caucus.
The letter equated the issue to the civil-rights struggle.
"We remember that, not long ago, some states defined marriage as limited to people of the same race," it stated. "We were told marriage between people of different races was 'unnatural' and that society would be eroded if marriage changed. The truth is, marriage has evolved throughout history to reflect the needs and progress of society."
"From our perspective, it's clearly a civil-rights issue," Zopp said. "It's an equal-protection issue." She added that the group's intent is to "show the legislators that there's much broader support than they might have thought."
The bill's Senate sponsor, Heather Steans (D-Chicago), hopes to bring it up for a vote this week and push it on for consideration by the House next week. Prospects were "hard to say," Raoul added. "I think they're decent, but lame-duck is always the time of year of unpredictability."
The new General Assembly will be sworn in Jan. 9.