Illinois lawmakers closed their Spring 2019 session with a series of decisions that dismayed conservative voters across the state. Several measures passed by the General Assembly were lauded as progressive by their proponents, while signaling precipitous moral decline to evangelical Christians.
As other states in the South and Midwest approved bans on abortion, Gov. J.B. Pritzker celebrated passage of the Reproductive Health Act (RHA) by calling Illinois “the most progressive state in the nation for reproductive healthcare.” Meanwhile, pro-life advocates grieved what they say is among the country’s most extreme abortion legislation.
RHA repeals several long-standing restrictions on abortion and declares the choice to have an abortion a “fundamental right.” In addition to that measure, lawmakers voted to legalize recreational marijuana and sports betting in Illinois.
Pritzker had campaigned on several issues of concern to conservative Christians, and Democratic majorities in both houses indicated the governor could make good on his promises sooner rather than later. But the amount of legislation they passed, especially in the last few days of session, seemed to surprise even lawmakers. In a post-session press release, the Pritzker administration called it “Illinois’ most sweeping and consequential legislative agenda in a generation.”
Reaction from many Christians was the opposite. As one poster summarized on IBSA’s Facebook page: “I’ve never wanted to move so badly.”
Still, voters with a biblical worldview have reason to hope, said Scott Foshie, pastor of Steeleville Baptist Church and a trustee of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
“It was so discouraging to see law after law passed that go directly against biblical principles,” Foshie said, “but we have to remember that God is in control. It is in situations like this that the Lord loves use his people to display his glory in amazing ways.”
Illinois’ expansion of abortion came amid a season of new restrictions on the practice in other states. Lawmakers in Missouri, Louisiana, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio approved bans on abortion early in pregnancy, and Alabama passed a law to allow it only to prevent a serious health risk to the mother.
As the state moves in the opposite of others around the country and in the Midwest, some pro-life advocates fear Illinois will become an “abortion oasis” for women who can’t obtain an abortion where they live. Even before the most recent legislative action, Illinois was deemed a “middle-ground” state in regards to abortion by the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research organization. Guttmacher’s map, updated in January of this year, shows Illinois mostly surrounded by states labeled hostile or very hostile to abortion rights.
Most concerning to pro-lifers is that the Reproductive Health Act had many detractors outside of the General Assembly. Thousands of people showed up at the Capitol in March to protest the bill, and it stalled in committee soon afterward. But its sponsors called for renewed support and action on the bill during the final days of session.
“No words can express the disappointment and heartache pro-life Illinoisans, like myself, are feeling,” Ralph Rivera, spokesman for Illinois Right to Life Action, told the Chicago Sun-Times. “The incredible grassroots efforts of Illinois citizens who worked against this bill was astounding and makes it clear that we were in the majority.”
The legislation passed this spring shows the distance between big city politics and the rest of the state, Foshie said, and also should compel Christians to take the light of Jesus Christ to Chicago.
“The fact that Chicago politicians dominated the terrible decisions made last week highlights the spiritual lostness in the Chicagoland area,” Foshie said. “The Lord loves the people of Chicago, and we should see this time as a wonderful opportunity to share the gospel and to lead people to know Jesus throughout that city.”
A chance to flourish
While the Reproductive Health Act took up most of the legislative air this spring, other measures made it through at the last minute. Pritzker built his proposed budget in part on revenue from marijuana legalization and gambling expansion, even before lawmakers had ironed out details in the actual bills.
When legislators left Springfield, they had sent to the governor’s desk a bill that allows Illinois residents to legally possess up to 30 grams of marijuana. If signed, Illinois would be the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana. The law will go into effect Jan. 1, 2020. As their session went into overtime June 2, the General Assembly also opened the door to legal sports betting and casinos in Chicagoland.
Despite the disheartening session, the slate of bills passed doesn’t necessarily indicate conservatives are losing ground, Mary Kate Knorr, executive director of Illinois Right to Life, tole the Illinois Baptist. Or at least, any lost ground isn’t isolated to the current session.
“To be frank, we lost ground many years ago,” Knorr said, adding that the political tide could turn soon over the way lawmakers promoted the Reproductive Health Act. “General Assembly leadership pushed this legislation through over a holiday weekend when they thought the public wasn’t paying attention because the people of this state had already spoken on this issue. Illinois residents responded overwhelmingly in opposition to this extreme abortion legislation—and the legislature blatantly ignored them.”
Knorr predicted a “major shift in the power dynamics” in Springfield. But for those weary and wary of the current political climate, Foshie said it highlights the need for revived, revitalized churches.
“We also need to see a movement of new churches being planted all across the state,” he said. “The early church experienced similar challenges and they flourished when they trusted the Lord and shared faithfully. If we will depend on the Lord and saturate our state with the gospel, we can also see an abundant spiritual harvest in our day.”