By Joanne von Alroth
SPRINGFIELD, Illinois (Reuters) - The Illinois state Senate approved a bill to legalize same-sex marriage on Thursday in a Valentine's Day vote spearheaded by Democrats, as gay couples around the country used the romantic day to dramatize their quest for the right to marry.
The Illinois Senate, which is heavily Democratic, voted 34-21 largely along party lines to advance the measure to the House in President Barack Obama's home state. The fate of the bill in the state's lower chamber remains uncertain.
Democratic Governor Pat Quinn has promised to sign any bill legalizing gay marriage, which would make Illinois the 10th state to legalize same-sex nuptials, in addition to the District of Columbia. It would also become the first Midwestern state to approve same-sex marriage through legislation. Iowa's Supreme Court legalized such marriages there in 2009.
"Full equality for all people is right for Illinois," Quinn said in a statement urging the House to approve the measure.
Obama has encouraged the drive to legalize gay marriage, authorizing a White House statement recently saying that if he were still in the Illinois legislature, he would vote for it.
The Illinois drive to legalize gay marriage coincided with a national campaign by a coalition of gay rights groups to highlight the issue on Valentine's Day.
As part of what they call "Freedom to Marry Week," same-sex couples will request marriage licenses in 18 places around the country, including a number of states where same sex-marriage is not legal.
"These laws are unjust and immoral, and we are confronting those laws head-on across the country," said Heather Cronk, managing director of GetEQUAL, a gay rights group.
Democrats accounted for all but one of the votes supporting legalization of gay marriage in the Illinois Senate. Three Democrats voted against the bill and two voted "present."
Republican Senator Jason Barickman brought audible gasps on the Senate floor and galleries when he said changes sponsors made earlier Thursday to guarantee religious liberty had persuaded him to support the bill.
Barickman acknowledged afterward that his vote could cause a backlash in his largely conservative district, but he had no regrets. "I feel like I did the right thing," he said.
Democratic Senator Bill Haine voted against the proposal and along with Democratic Representative Daniel Beiser has proposed amending the Illinois constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
"We are changing an institution that is revered or held sacred ... by thousands of people," Haine said.
Although the Illinois House, like the state's Senate, is controlled by Democrats, the fate of the legislation in the lower chamber remains a question mark. It is unclear when representatives might take up the proposal.
Illinois House Republican Leader Tom Cross said he was not sure whether the measure would gain Republican support. There also was concern that some black Democratic legislators from Chicago could oppose the measure because of pressure from African-American Christian pastors.
Some black ministers have joined Illinois Catholic bishops in expressing strong opposition to legalization.
The state's financial crisis is expected to dominate the legislature this year and some business groups have said lawmakers should focus solely on the state's fiscal mess.
Three states approved same-sex marriage by referendum in the November election: Maryland, Maine and Washington. Rhode Island, the only state in New England that has not yet legalized same-sex marriage, moved a step closer last month with approval by its state House of Representatives, although it was expected to face an uphill battle in the state Senate.
(Writing by Greg McCune; editing by Matthew Lewis, Cynthia Johnston, Leslie Adler and Cynthia Osterman)