By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Like many gay couples in the United States, Theresa Volpe and Mercedes Santos of Chicago will be keeping a close eye on the Supreme Court this week as it hears arguments on two same-sex marriage cases.
The high court review coincides with a crucial moment at home in the couple's fight to make Illinois the tenth state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage. Volpe and Santos, who have personally lobbied Illinois lawmakers on this issue, worry about delays in drumming up enough votes for passage of a bill in their state and a growing campaign from opponents.
Supporters had hoped the bill would sail through the Democratic-majority legislature in President Barack Obama's home state in January. But it took until Valentine's Day to go through the Senate and was still several votes short in the House by late March.
"What's going on in Illinois is a little disturbing - we're worried and anxious, but I know they're working hard to make things happen," said Santos, who is bringing up two children with Volpe.
The delay underscores the difficulty of securing approval for gay marriage, even in a state with strong Democratic majorities in the legislature and a Democratic governor who supports it.
During a two-week legislative spring break that began on Monday, both sides were intensifying their efforts.
Opponents of the bill are focusing mainly on the more conservative and rural areas of the state south of Chicago, and some African-American districts in Chicago.
More than 425,000 robo-calls have been placed to constituents in more than 20 districts, according to Paul Caprio, director of Family-Pac, an Illinois-based family values political action group opposed to gay marriage.
Calls to six African-American districts have featured the voice of former state Senator James Meeks, a prominent Chicago black minister opposed to same-sex nuptials.
"We've had tremendous response from the minority community on this issue," Caprio said.
In one call to people in southwestern Illinois, Caprio's voice asks voters whether their state lawmaker stands for "the Chicago homosexuals, or your family?"
'LIKE ANY OTHER FAMILY'
Bernard Cherkasov, executive director of Equality Illinois, a Chicago-based gay rights organization, said proponents were focusing more on personal appeals to legislators from constituents, including ministers and rabbis and gay couples themselves.
"I do feel really optimistic. We're really close, we're in striking distance to passing the bill," he said.
Volpe, 42, and Santos, 47, are among the gay couples who taken their appeal to lawmakers in the Illinois state capital of Springfield.
They have been together for 21 years and have two children, Ava, 8, and Jaidon, 4, conceived through an anonymous donor. The couple became outspoken advocates for gay marriage after Jaidon suffered kidney failure two years ago and was in danger of dying.
While Theresa filled out the paperwork at the hospital, Mercedes sat with him in his room. But then Theresa was told she could not see Jaidon, as there was no hospital policy for two mothers.
They believe marriage will be easier to explain to people at hospitals and other facilities than the civil union they formed after Illinois approved that option in 2011. And they want the federal rights heterosexual couples have, including Social Security benefits and tax exemptions for a surviving spouse's inheritance.
"We want people to realize that we're just like any other family - we love our kids - we don't do anything special but be parents," Santos said.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a challenge against California's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage known as Proposition 8. On Wednesday, the justices will hear arguments on the Defense of Marriage Act, which excludes gay couples from federal benefits.
It is difficult to predict how the court might rule on Proposition 8, and how that would affect other states. One option could affect Illinois and other states that are like California in allowing civil unions but forbidding actual marriage. The Obama administration wants the Supreme Court to strike down Proposition 8 because it relegates such same-sex civil unions to a lower legal status.
Public opinion nationally has been turning in favor of gay marriage and civil unions. A Reuters/Ipsos poll in mid-March found 63 percent of Americans in favor of gay marriage or civil unions.
(Additional reporting by Joan Biskupic; Editing by Greg McCune, Mary Milliken and David Brunnstrom)