Gay marriage cleared a first hurdle to becoming law in Illinois on Thursday afternoon after gaining approval in a state Senate committee.
The action by the Senate Executive Committee means the bill can now move to the full Senate.
When exactly supporters would get a crack at the divisive issue in that body remained unclear. Democrats called off a full Senate vote earlier in the day after Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) said three lawmakers weren't present for the General Assembly's lame-duck session. One Democrat was out of the country and another had a family issue to attend, while a GOP supporter was absent because of her mother's death.
But Steans said the delay would only push a vote into next week or, at the latest, soon after the new Legislature is sworn in Jan. 9.
"This is definitely a question of when, not if," Steans said. "This is the right thing to be doing."
Senate Democrats hold a 35-24 majority, but even in President Barack Obama's home state, party members outside Chicago don't always toe the line. Not all are on board with extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, and key supporters did not attend Thursday's session.
If the measure becomes law, Illinois would become the 10th state to approve same-sex marriage. It would be the first state to adopt it after momentum built following several successes across the nation in the November election and public encouragement from President Barack Obama.
Advocates are pushing for full gay marriage rights just 18 months after the state recognized civil unions.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is among the supporters.
"Gay and lesbian couples deserve full recognition of their relationships," she said in a statement shortly after the committee's vote. "Couples who are in loving, committed relationships should be able to marry and be treated equally in the eye of the law."
Many faith organizations are opposed to the proposal on religious freedom grounds, arguing it would compel them to treat same-sex unions as the equivalent of traditional marriage.
"The bill, as it's drafted now, will make it almost impossible for a religious organization to prohibit the use of its facilities for same-sex marriages, even if the tenets of that particular faith are diametrically opposed to that, and I think it's a fatal flaw in the bill," said Sen. Dale Righter (R-Mattoon).
But proponents said the legislation would not impinge on religious beliefs because religious organizations would not have to recognize or consecrate gay marriage.
"It's really important to understand it's not within its own church facility itself that's primarily used for religious purpose. If you have an ancillary facility that does do renting out for public accommodation and is getting payment in exchange for that, that you cannot deny equal access to to all individuals," Steans said after the vote.
A gay actor who stars in a popular TV comedy campaigned for the measure in Illinois while religious leaders -- including a phalanx of 1,700 clergy, from Catholic to Muslim -- united in writing lawmakers to oppose it.
"The real peril: If marriage is redefined in civil law, individuals and religious organizations -- regardless of deeply held beliefs -- will be compelled to treat same-sex unions as the equivalent of marriage in their lives, ministries and operations," said the letter, penned by leaders of Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Mormon, Anglican, and Islamic faiths.
In a twist not uncommon in Illinois politics, the state's Republican Party chairman said he was lobbying for what he termed a "conservative" position in favor of proposal, calling it a matter of equality for "the party of Lincoln."
"I don't think the government should be in the business of telling people who can and can't get married," GOP chairman Pat Brady said Thursday. "... This is the most conservative position."
The proposal was a political risk for Democrats, who came to Springfield with voters most concerned about the $96 billion debt in the state's public pension systems, a problem Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, a gay-marriage supporter, said should nonetheless be the lame-duck session's top priority.
The plan is riding a wave from November ballot questions in several states bolstering gay marriage and support from Obama, whose political career began in the Illinois Senate.
But the hiccups began before the champagne bottles were uncorked. Steans' attempt to amend marriage language onto an existing bill Wednesday night stalled when Republicans demanded a roll call on a procedural measure and defeated the bill's progress.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.