The American project is the story of the slow, but inexorable march towards the full realization of our nation's founding creed: that all men ( and women ) are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Of course, at the time those immortal words flowed from quill pen to parchment paper, and for many decades thereafter, there were significant numbers of Americans for whom their treatment under the law was anything but equal. Voting, for example, in our country's early days was a right conferred only to white, male property owners at least 21 years of age.
From 1861-1865, Americans fought their fellow countrymen to decide whether or not we would continue to allow one human being to own another. The Civil War was the bloodiest in our history, 620,000 Americans died. At its conclusion, southern slaves were emancipated, President Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was martyred, and the long struggle for African Americans' civil rights had only just begun. Though it took many years before its provisions would truly be enforced, in 1885, the Illinois General Assembly passed a Civil Rights Act that forbade discrimination in lodging, dining, transportation and other public accommodations.
The Women's Suffrage Movement began in 1848, before the end of slavery, but did not achieve its ultimate end, the right of women to vote, until 1920, when the 19thAmendment to the Constitution was ratified by 36 state legislatures. Illinois, by the way, was a leader in this regard, having seven years earlier voted to permit women to vote for Presidential electors and local offices not specified in the state's constitution, and being among the first three states to ratify the 19th Amendment.
In 1954, well within living memory of today, the United States Supreme Court unanimously struck down the precedent established by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which held that segregated schools were permissible under the Constitution. Brown v. Board of Education decreed that "separate, but equal" was unconstitutional. Those ninewhite, male justices, seven born before Plessy, recognized that separate treatment in the law is incompatible with equal treatment under the law.
By analogy to civil rights for African Americans, in most states today, when it comes to the legal treatment of same-sex couples we are living in antebellum times. Prior to emancipation, according to Princeton history professorTera Hunter, "marriage was a civil right and a legal contract, available only to free people." In Illinois, we have had a civil unions law since 2011. While that was a major step forward for the state, conferring some of the same legal benefits to same-sex partners as are available to opposite-sex ones, from a legal perspective it has really only brought us to the Plessy era.
As an African American, I am very sensitive to those who take umbrage at likening the struggles for equal rights for black Americans and others of color, to those seeking the same for gay and lesbian Americans. I agree that the history and nature of the two movements are different, but would also point out that there are ample parallels in both. Lynchings, beatings, firings, housing discrimination, denial of educational opportunities, mockery and scorn are common evils visited upon both. It also bears noting that there are many African Americans in same-sex relationships who have borne the double indignity of Jim Crow and a denial of their right to marry the person they love.
My thinking on this matter has been deeply influenced by the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Congressman John Lewis of Georgia is the former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee ( SNCC ), Freedom Rider, participant in sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters, victim of the Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma who was beaten and had his skull fractured by a policemen's night stick for his non-violent effort to help secure voting rights for African Americans in the South, and a man of strong faith who is a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary. Lewis supports marriage equality and views its achievement in the same terms as the struggle for civil rights for people of color.
Julian Bond, a SNCC cofounder, former elected official, president emeritus of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and past chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has said that "sexuality is unchangeable," something with which people are born. Therefore, it makes no more sense to permit discrimination on its basis than it does to allow it because of the color of one's skin — another characteristic that does not fall in the realm of choice.
The presidency of Barack Obama was made possible by the courage of Lewis, Bond, and millions of others, black, white, Latino, Asian and Native American who fought for civil rights. Obama himself has wrestled very publicly with his views on the issue, ultimately realizing that his Christian faith was fully compatible with his endorsement of equal marriage rights.
The extension equal rights to citizens who are currently denied them does not come at the cost of diminishing the rights of others. 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-sex couples will be forced to do so, or face legal consequences including the loss of their tax-exempt status. This is absolutely false. Those religious institutions that wish to recognize and permit same-sex marriages will be as free to do so as those who oppose them will be to refuse to perform them. To do otherwise would be a violation of the 1st Amendment's prohibition on interference with the free exercise of religion. This protection is explicitly acknowledged in the language of Senate Bill 10. The separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our democracy will be in no way threatened or challenged when this bill becomes law.
I will vote for the legalization of same-sex marriage. Many conversations over the last several months with constituents, clergy members, community leaders and legal scholars, only bolster my conviction that it is the right course for our state. Illinoisans should not wait for the courts to lead us. As with women's suffrage and civil rights, let us once again be at the forefront. It is time we join the vanguard of 15 other states that have legalized same-sex marriage and embraced the moral courage and legal soundness exemplified by Brown: separate, but equal is un-American.