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Wednesday, June 14, 2006 01:02 am

Leaving nothing to chance

Illinois may vote on same-sex marriage but why?

The last time a statewide referendum went before the Illinois electorate, 1978, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt had just been shot and paralyzed, perennial Hall of Fame reject Pete Rose cracked his 3,000th hit, and Ted Kaczynski sent his first bomb to Northwestern University. On May 8, volunteers from a conservative group called Protect Marriage Illinois submitted more than 345,000 petition signatures to the Illinois State Board of Elections. PMI wants to prevent same-sex couples from trading vows by having it declared in the state Constitution that “marriage between a man and a woman is the only legal union that shall be valid or recognized.”
It’s only the second such advisory referendum in 28 years. A similar federal measure was defeated last week in the U.S. Senate. Granted, states are the laboratories for democracy, but what remains unclear from the PMI effort is what, specifically, they want to protect. According to provisional data for 2004 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, divorce here is actually on the decline. Besides that, Illinois’ Defense of Marriage Act already precludes gay couples from tying the knot. Nor is it likely that the let’s-not-rock-the-boat, albeit Democratic-tilted, Illinois Supreme Court will interfere. “We want to prevent marriage from being redefined by some rogue judge,” says Peter LaBarbera, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, which has taken the lead on the PMI ballot initiative. In the meantime, Fair Illinois, a group led by Equality Illinois, one of the state’s chief gay-rights-advocacy organizations, has begun the exhaustive process of verifying the signatures by cross-checking the names against voter lists, hoping to disqualify enough of them — PMI needs 283,111 valid signatures — to keep the measure from moving forward. “From people running for mayor, governor, or water commissioner, this is just how the process works,” says Matt Kuzma, who coordinates volunteers for Fair Illinois. Disqualifying enough signatures may be difficult, given the state has a large, solid block of conservative voters, as evidenced by the March Republican primary, in which gubernatorial candidates Bill Brady and Jim Oberweis together scooped up 368,946 votes in their losing efforts.
Kuzma, who’s married, says he doesn’t need PMI protecting his marriage. “The left’s favorite line is ‘Because you’re fighting against gay marriage, you’re not concerned about divorce,’ ” LaBarbera says. “It just so happens that this is the current threat. We’re trying to prevent a Roe v. Wade on the marriage issue.”
Indeed, if it appears on the ballot, the PMI amendment is sure to turn out the conservative vote — for whom, though, is anybody’s guess. Gubernatorial candidates Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, the state’s sole Republican constitutional officeholder, and incumbent Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, both oppose gay marriage, though neither likes the idea of tinkering with the Constitution to outlaw the practice. “We’re getting shut out here,” LaBarbera says. “This is not Massachusetts — this is the Midwest, Middle America — and to have two pro-homosexual candidates is amazing.”
Topinka, he admits, will likely benefit more from a deluge of conservatives at the polls, though he thinks right-wing voters would be more enthusiastic if Topinka “threw a few bones to the pro-marriage folks, maybe if she went to visit her sick aunt instead of marching in gay-pride parades.”
 It would be less work — and cheaper, for sure — for Fair Illinois to let democracy do its thing and watch PMI implode under the weight of its extremism. Still, Fair Illinois isn’t leaving anything to chance. “It’s a great coffeehouse question: How would you ideally like government to work? But when it comes down to politics in Illinois, it comes to putting in the work,” Kuzma says. “[Illinois Family Institute] has called being gay an infection. It’s pretty easy to take that as a slap in the face. I’d rather do something constructive now.”
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