By Joanne von Alroth
SPRINGFIELD, Illinois (Reuters) - A panel of Illinois lawmakers voted on Thursday to send legislation legalizing gay marriage in President Barack Obama's home state to the floor of the state Senate, setting up a possible vote on the issue next week.
The 8-5 vote by the Senate Executive Committee fell along party lines, with the panel's Democratic majority supporting the measure and its Republican minority opposing it.
Although the Democratic-controlled Senate adjourned late on Thursday, lawmakers said the bill likely would be called on Tuesday when the Senate returns for a special session.
The Democratic-led state House of Representatives may take up the legislation next week as well. If the bill is approved by the Legislature and signed by Democratic Governor Pat Quinn, Illinois would become the 10th state along with the District of Columbia to legalize same sex-nuptials and the first Midwest state to do so through legislation.
Iowa's Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2009.
Spectators in the crowded committee room gave the committee a standing ovation after the measure passed, with many embracing and trading high-fives.
"This is a great feeling; we feel it's about time," said Theresa Volpe, 47, of Chicago, who testified before the committee along with her partner of 21 years, Mercedes Santos. They have two children, Ava, 8, and Jaidon, 4.
The two have had a civil union since Illinois began offering same-sex couples that option in June 2011. But Volpe said she was banned from her son's room in a hospital intensive care unit because the administrator did not understand what civil union meant.
Volpe and Santos are plaintiffs in a lawsuit demanding same-sex marriage in Illinois.
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM ISSUE
Although all Republican senators on the committee voted against the measure, Republican Senator Christine Radogno said she saw potential for bipartisan support down the line if changes were made to the bill's language.
A key issue to be resolved is whether Illinois should allow religious groups the option of declining to perform same-sex marriages. New York granted such an exception in 2011 in order to secure the votes to legalize gay marriage there.
Bishop Thomas Paprocki, representing the Catholic Conference of Illinois, noted that he and the leaders of 1,700 other congregations in the state saw the bill as a threat to their beliefs.
"Marriage is neither two men nor two women," Paprocki said. "This will radically redefine what marriage is for everybody."
Also objecting on Thursday was the Thomas More Society, a public interest law firm that says lawmakers who support the bill will strip away religious liberty protections ensured by civil unions.
By approving it, those lawmakers will "declare constituents who believe that marriage is a union of one man and one woman to be bigots and discriminators," said a letter signed by Society President Thomas Brejcha and Executive Director Peter Breen.
Earlier in the week, Chicago's Cardinal Francis George sent a letter to Catholic parishes saying same-sex marriage undermined the "natural family" between a man and a woman.
A survey of Illinois voters by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling late last year found 47 percent supported gay marriage, 42 percent opposed and 11 percent unsure.
The poll of 500 Illinois voters was conducted from November 26 to 28 and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
(Editing by Greg McCune, James B. Kelleher and Peter Cooney)