November 26, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
Ill. lesbian couple granted immediate marriage license
A court has granted Vernita Gray (left) and Patricia Ewert an expedited marriage license in Illinois (Photo courtesy Lambda Legal).

A court has granted Vernita Gray (left) and Patricia Ewert an expedited marriage license in Illinois. (Photo courtesy Lambda Legal)

A state court in Illinois has granted a temporary restraining order to a lesbian couple in which one person in the relationship is terminally ill so the two can wed before the effective date of the state’s recently signed marriage equality law.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin, an Obama appointee, signed a proposed temporary restraining order on Monday ordering Cook County Clerk David Orr to grant Vernita Gray and Patricia Ewert a marriage license and register their marriage.

“Defendant is ordered to issue a marriage license to Plaintiffs upon their application and satisfaction of all legal requirements for a marriage in Cook County except for the requirement that they be of different sexes, and Defendant is ordered to register their solemnized marriage as is presently required for all other marriages,” Durkin writes.

Durkin adds in his own handwriting that the proposed order will expire on Dec. 9 unless otherwise extended.

According to the complaint filed on Friday, Gray was diagnosed in 1996 with breast cancer that has since proved terminal as it has metastasized into her bones and brain. She may only have weeks left to live.

Even though the Cook County couple entered into a civil union in 2011, Gray and Ewert wish to marry in Illinois before Gray passes away. Erik Roldon, a spokesperson for Lambda Legal, said now that the couple has the temporary restraining order, they could marry as soon as Wednesday.

In a statement, Gray expressed tremendous joy that she’d finally be able to marry her long-time partner in their home state.

“I have two cancers, bone and brain and I just had chemo today — I am so happy to get this news,” Gray said. “I’m excited to be able to marry and take care of Pat, my partner and my family, should I pass.”

Gov. Pat Quinn (D) signed into law last week legislation granting same-sex couples the right to marry to Illinois, but that law doesn’t go into effect until June 1.

Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Illinois filed the lawsuit Friday on behalf of the couple to seek immediate action. The advocacy groups — joined by counsel at Kirkland & Ellis and Miller, Shakman & Beem — asked that the court hear the case on an emergency basis.

Camilla Taylor, marriage project director for Lambda Legal, said the temporary restraining order will bring quick action for the two in their remaining days.

“Vernita is terminally ill and she wishes to marry the woman she loves before she dies — and now she won’t have to wait another day,” Taylor said. “These two women, who have loved and cared for each other in good times and bad, through sickness and through health, will get to know what it means to be married.”

John Knight, LGBT Project Director at the ACLU of Illinois, said the judge issued the order because of the “arbitrary nature of the start date” of the new law.

“Their love deserves the dignity of marriage now and there is simply no justification for forcing them to wait,” Knight said.

According to the complaint, both Gray and Ewert have engaged in various forms of activism even before the time they met.

Gray, 64, spent 20 years working as a victim’s advocate in the Cook County court systems and served as LGBT liaison in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. For her work in combatting hate crimes, Gray was invited to the White House in 2009 to witness President Obama’s signing of the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Ewert, 65, and a breast cancer survivor, is currently community outreach coordinator for Illinois State Rep. Kelly Cassidy and a former executive director for Lives on Target, a non-profit dedicated to providing archery resources.

Natalie Bauer, a spokesperson for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, said her boss filed a brief before the court in support of the order and supports the decision.

“While the State has now taken the historic step of extending marriage to gay and lesbian couples, Ms. Gray’s terminal illness is expected to prevent her from living until June 1 when she and Ms. Ewert could finally obtain the rights and benefits of being married,” Bauer said. “Continuing to ban this committed couple from marrying violates their right to equal protection and serves no legitimate purpose.”

Courts have previously ordered county clerks to grant marriage licenses to gay couples statewide and a federal judge in Ohio has issued temporary restraining orders requiring the recognition of the union of same-sex couples who wed elsewhere.

However, the Illinois order is the first time a court has through a temporary restraining order required a county clerk to provide a marriage license to a same-sex couple. It’s also the first time a court has granted an expedited license following a state legislature’s passage of marriage equality.

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said the judge’s order builds on the realization by the Illinois state legislature that there’s no reason to prohibit same-sex couples from marrying.

“The Illinois Legislature found no good reason to exclude gay couples from marriage; now the court found no good reason to deny this loving committed couple their marriage license even one more day,” Wolfson said. “The judge, like a majority of Americans, understood the human reality that gay couples’ exclusion from marriage is painful and unjust, and that every day of denial is a day of real harm.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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