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Thursday, Jan. 13, 2005 10:41 pm

Making history

Rick Garcia, political director for Equality Illinois, with other gay-rights activists at the Capitol on Tuesday

Rousing applause erupted in the Illinois House on Tuesday as gay-rights activists celebrated passage of legislation that bans housing and employment discrimination against homosexuals.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich said he will sign the controversial bill into law, ending more than a decade of failed attempts to make a person's sexual orientation a basic human right.

"This truly is a landmark day in Illinois," Blagojevich said in a statement.

Lawmakers green-lighted the bill in dramatic fashion, passing it through both legislative chambers in the final two days of the 93rd General Assembly.

The bill squeaked through the Illinois Senate on Monday, garnering the minimum 30 votes needed for passage, and then sailed through the Illinois House on Tuesday with a 65-51 margin.

The House has passed similar legislation in recent years, only to see it killed under the Senate's more conservative leadership.

"It's a day I thought I'd never see," said Rick Garcia, political director of Chicago-based Equality Illinois, who has lobbied to enact such a law for the past decade.

Opponents of the bill fretted that it would thrust open the door for gay marriage and civil unions in Illinois. But supporters defended the bill's singular focus; and several black lawmakers invoked their own battles against discrimination.

"It's not about gay marriage," said Sen. Carol Ronen, D-Chicago, a lead sponsor. "It's not about anything but ending discrimination."

The legislation will add "sexual orientation" to the Illinois Human Rights Act, which prohibits bias in employment, housing, public accommodations, and credit. The law currently protects people based on race, religion, gender, age, marital status, or handicap.

A similar law was passed in more than a dozen other states, and 15 cities throughout Illinois already have similar provisions.

Springfield added sexual orientation to its list of protected classes in January 2003. Still, all three state lawmakers charged with representing the capital city voted to spike the legislation.

"I don't think there's that much discrimination now," said State Rep. Raymond Poe, R-Springfield, predicting that the legislation would cause a flurry of "frivolous lawsuits" against the state.

Similar views were expressed by state Rep. Rich Brauer, R-Petersburg, and state Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield.

"Do I think there are some rednecks out there? Yeah, I do," said Bomke. "But passing a law when there isn't a problem that exists doesn't make sense to me."

Garcia rejected these claims, saying that Springfield's lawmakers voted against the bill in order to protect themselves.

"It's about politics," said Garcia. "They perceive their districts as too conservative and don't want to risk what they consider a dangerous vote for them."

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