The US state of Illinois came one step closer to legalising equal marriage on Tuesday, as a bill to legalise it passed the Senate Executive Committee, and will now face the vote in the full senate.

The committee passed the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act by 9 votes to 5, which means it will go to the Senate floor for a full vote.

Sponsors of the bill, Senator Heather Steans and Representative Greg Harris, both of Chicago, had pledged to move forward with a bill to legalise equal marriage quickly in the new session of the General Assembly.

Senator Steans said: I applaud my colleagues for their vote today… All eyes are on Illinois as the next state expected to include gay and lesbian in the freedom to marry.”

Senate President John plans to hold the vote on the bill on Valentines day, 14 February, if he and other equal marriage advocates in the House can gather the thirty votes necessary to pass the bill.

After the new General Assembly was sworn in in Illinois in January, the House Sponsor of a bill to legalise marriage equality in the state had said the measure could come to a vote “very soon”.

“I’m hoping [for a full Senate vote] next week,” Steans said after the committee hearing. “Senate President Cullerton said maybe on Valentine’s Day. I certainly hope so.”

Nine Democrats voted for the bill and five Republicans voted against it, reports the Chicago Phoenix. 

Before the bill was passed, some raised concerns from religious organisations that they would be forced to hold wedding receptions for gay couples, if the bill were to pass.

Those concerned cited the fact that churches, and similar facilities had been deemed public gathering places because they were historically used as polling stations and for other community events.

Christopher Clark, Senior Staff Attorney in the Midwest Regional Office of Lambda Legal, who testified on behalf of the bill said: “Questions on whether or not something is a public accommodation is not relevant to this law… That will be done through the Illinois Human Rights Act.”

“Nothing in this act forces a church to perform a same-sex marriage… No minister, no church has to perform a same-sex marriage.”

Pastor Keith Williams of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship Church in Country Club Hills — testified against the bill, saying: “We believe this bill will hurt the church’s ability to pursue its rights,” Williams said. “This is in vehement opposition to [the Bible].”

Those in favour of passing the bill were thrilled however, by the committee’s decision, and were critical of the concerns raised by its opponents.

In early January, although Democrats in the state of Illinois delayed a full Senate vote that was planned to make same-sex marriage legal, the Senate Committee approved the bill. Three senators were absent from the House, and so the vote did not move to the floor.

Democrats have increased their numbers in both chambers of the Senate House, which some have said could make it more likely that the bill would pass.

Representative Harris also said that he knew of hundreds of religious leaders from the state who had voiced their support for marriage equality.