By Joanne von Alroth
SPRINGFIELD, Illinois (Reuters) - Illinois Democratic lawmakers may mark Valentine's Day on Thursday by holding a vote in the state Senate to legalize same-sex nuptials, as gay couples around the country used the romantic day to dramatize their quest for the right to marry.
State Senate President John Cullerton promised a vote on the issue by Valentine's Day, and intense negotiations were under way on details of a measure that majority Democrats hope will have enough support to pass.
"The Senate president remains confident that a vote can be scheduled for Thursday," Cullerton's spokeswoman, Rikeesha Phelon, said earlier this week.
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 the legislature. Iowa's Supreme Court legalized such marriages there in 2009.
President Barack Obama has encouraged the drive to legalize gay marriage in his home state, 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.
A committee of the Illinois state Senate last week approved a measure to legalize same-sex marriage. Democrats say they have the votes to pass it later on Thursday, but some in their own party were opposed, and Republican support was uncertain.
Highlighting the divisions on the issue, two Democratic state lawmakers broke with their party leaders on Thursday and introduced measures in both chambers of the legislature that call for an amendment to the state constitution to enshrine marriage as between a man and a woman.
One key stumbling block to passage is whether the measure will allow religious groups to refuse to conduct such marriages or provide facilities for them without facing legal challenges.
To soothe such concerns, sponsors said they revised the bill to allow clergy the option of refusing to solemnize such marriages, an approach that helped New York state overcome opposition to gay marriage.
"Protecting religious liberty is a huge issue," Republican state Senate leader Christine Radogno said on Wednesday, adding that she had not decided whether to support the bill.
Even if it passes the Senate, its fate in the Illinois House was uncertain. House Republican Leader Tom Cross said he was not sure whether it 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.
Another factor could be the state's financial crisis, which is expected to dominate the legislature this year. Some business groups have said the legislature should focus solely on the state fiscal mess to the exclusion of all else.
Three states approved same-sex marriage by referendum in the November election: Maryland, Maine and Washington. Rhode Island, the last state in New England that has not legalized same-sex marriage, moved a step closer last month with approval by its state House of Representatives.
(Writing by Greg McCune; editing by Matthew Lewis)
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