More than 250 religious leaders in Illinois have signed an open letter in support of same-sex marriage, which the legislature is likely to take up in January.
"We dedicate our lives to fostering faith and compassion, and we work daily to promote justice and fairness for all," the leaders wrote in the letter, which was released Sunday. "Standing on these beliefs, we think that it is morally just to grant equal opportunities and responsibilities to loving, committed same-sex couples.
"There can be no justification," they continued, "for the law treating people differently on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity."
This is not the first time members of the clergy have endorsed same-sex marriage, but the public nature of the letter and the number of signatures made it an especially strong statement.
The timing is also significant: State Senator Heather A. Steans and State Representative Greg Harris, both Democrats, plan to introduce a bill next month to legalize same-sex marriage. Ms. Steans said they would not put the legislation, the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, up for a vote unless they were confident it would pass. She added that the Senate, at least, was "definitely within striking distance" of the 30 votes needed for passage and that she hoped the letter would help persuade undecided legislators to support the bill.
Many of the 260 Christian and Jewish leaders who signed the letter said they had long supported same-sex marriage and were excited to make their views more public.
"It's not a religious right -- it's a civil right," said the Rev. Kevin E. Tindell, a United Church of Christ minister at New Dimensions Chicago. "It's a matter of justice, and so as a Christian, as a citizen, I feel that it's my duty." Mr. Tindell, who is gay, is raising three children with his partner of 17 years.
The Rev. Kim L. Beckmann of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who lives in the Chicago area, said she was drawn into the movement "as my gay and lesbian parishioners were welcomed into our congregation."
"I have participated in blessings of these unions for longer than we've even been talking about marriage," she said. "I'm thrilled to take this step."
Laurie Higgins, cultural analyst for the Illinois Family Institute, which opposes same-sex marriage, criticized the branding of the issue as a matter of "equality" and "inclusion."
"All adults, regardless of their sexual proclivities, are entitled to participate in the sexually complementary institution of marriage," she wrote in an e-mail. "Those who identify as homosexual choose not to participate in it."
The letter, Ms. Higgins said, "is signed quite obviously by faith leaders who have adopted radical, ahistorical, heretical theological views."
"Their views are informed not by careful exegesis, but by personal desire and political convictions," she said.
Signatories of the letter said one of their motivations was to challenge the assumption that religion went hand in hand with opposition to same-sex marriage.
The Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer of St. John's Episcopal Church in Chicago said it was a way for religious leaders to say, "I'm a faithful Christian or a Jew or Muslim, and I think that marriage equality is important."
"It doesn't have to be a faith issue," she said. "We understand our Scripture in a different way."
The Episcopal Church endorsed same-sex marriage in July. Other denominations, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Roman Catholic Church, have reaffirmed their opposition.
Ms. Steans said she and Mr. Harris had been careful to ensure that the Illinois legislation would protect religious freedom. Under the proposed law, she said, "no faith has to solemnize a marriage they don't want to."
She added, though, that she had long believed that many religious leaders would like to conduct same-sex marriages, and that with the release of the letter, it was "very heartening to see that that will be the case."
Ms. Beckmann, the Lutheran minister, also cited the leeway for denominations and congregations to choose whether to ordain same-sex marriages.
"We'll sort it out as pastors and congregations and faith communities," she said. "But as a pastor, I am looking for the freedom to have the opportunity to bring the joy and societal recognition, as well as the protections for all families, that marriage provides."
Some signatories, though they emphasized the importance of religious leaders' endorsing same-sex marriage, sought to distance the issue from religion.
"This has nothing to do with doctrine," Mr. Tindell said. "This has to do with how families live and how families exist and how families come together today. All are God's children, and we are all worthy of the rights afforded in this country."
Ms. Higgins of the Illinois Family Institute, one of at least nine organizations in the Coalition to Protect Children and Marriage, which was formed to oppose the planned same-sex marriage legislation, also emphasized nonreligious arguments. She said the debate should be about how heterosexual marriage benefited society.
If marriage is "a public institution," she said, "why is the government involved? The government has no interest in whether two people love each other. The government interest is in what best serves the future of any country -- and what's best for the future of the country is what's best for children, and what best serves children is to be raised by their biological parents."
Nine states and Washington, D.C., allow same-sex marriage, and 12 others, including Illinois, allow civil unions or domestic partnerships.
When Ms. Wagner Sherer's congregation began blessing same-sex unions, some members were "on the fence," she said. "But something about witnessing it was really important to them."
Afterward, she said, many concluded: "We're blessing two people who love each other. We've done this many times, and we understand it."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.