By Dan Haley
It didn't come quickly, the decision to support the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, but on Memorial Day when State Rep. LaShawn Ford said he would vote this week in favor of gay marriage in Illinois, the choice seemed clear to him.
"This is a well-thought-out decision," he said in an exclusive interview with Wednesday Journal, a sister newspaper of Austin Weekly News.
Ford, a one-time seminarian, said he had prayed over it. He said he has been swamped with strong opinions from constituents on both sides of the controversy. He acknowledged he has felt heavy lobbying from a politically active segment of the black clergy.
In the end, though, he said "it is like the time has come" for gay marriage to be legal.
"When you think about the moral issue, this is about advancing opportunity," he said, "the opportunity for all people to pursue life, liberty and happiness. As Democrats we are about opportunity, about including people, not excluding."
Ford, the 8th District state representative for Oak Park and the West Side, said he expects the bill to be called on Wednesday or Thursday of this week. He said a portion of his support is owing to his respect for state Rep. Greg Harris, the Chicago Democrat who is the legislation's sponsor. He credited Harris with always being "very respectful" even in a town as political as Springfield.
"He has always supported issues important to the neighborhoods I represent," said Ford.
Ultimately, said Ford, "What really turns me is how the gay and lesbian community has taken a page from the Civil Rights Movement. I respect the hard work, the tenacity, the fortitude, the organization of the gay community in pursuing this. This should remind the African-American community what hard work [on political issues] does. This will go down in history as an example of how to effect change in the world."
Ford agreed there has traditionally been a cultural discomfort among some blacks towards homosexuality. But he says that is changing as the attitudes of the whole society shift on the issue. He pointed to a recent poll indicating that 60 percent of Illinois African Americans now support marriage equality.
"When you look at the struggles of African Americans, or immigrants, or gays and we find an example we can teach our children on how to create human change," he said.
Ford, who is under federal indictment on bank fraud charges, said his legal troubles are irrelevant to his current efforts and decisions in Springfield. Last week a judge set Ford's trial for next April.
He won't be surprised if there is pushback from some black clergy who have mobilized with press conferences and robocalls to pressure black legislators to oppose the marriage equality act. But Ford points to the protections built into the law, which allow churches to follow their beliefs in choosing whether to perform or recognize gay marriages.
"If they see this as against God then this is a call to action for them to go out and save souls," he said. "Every week ministers have the opportunity to change the hearts of people."
As the vote nears, the Sun-Times reports that state Rep. Camille Lilly of Oak Park and Austin will support the measure, that Rep. Chris Welch of River Forest and Forest Park remains undecided. But as of now LaShawn Ford is clearly in the yes to gay marriage column.
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