February 21, 2014 at 5:29 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Court rules gay couples can marry now in Chicago area
Vernita Gray (left) and Patricia Ewert were the first same-sex couples in Illinois (Photo courtesy Lambda Legal).

Vernita Gray (left) and Patricia Ewert became the first gay couple to wed in Cook County.(Photo courtesy Lambda Legal).

A federal court in Illinois ruled on Friday gay couples can marry immediately in the Chicago-area Cook County without waiting for the marriage equality law to take effect in June.

Meanwhile, LGBT advocates behind the lawsuit are interpreting the decision to mean clerks across the state should begin granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

In a brief four-page order, U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman, an Obama appointee, says Cook County can no longer prohibit gay couples from marrying because the marriage ban violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“There is no reason to delay further when no opposition has been presented to this Court and committed gay and lesbian couples have already suffered from the denial of their fundamental right to marry,” Coleman writes.

As Coleman notes, “there is no opposition” to the ruling because Cook County Clerk David Orr and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan weren’t defending the marriage law in court. Both Orr and Madigan filed briefs in support of the plaintiff same-sex couples in the case.

Although Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Illinois, the measure won’t take effect until June.

The class-action lawsuit, Lee v. Orr, was filed by Lambda Legal and ACLU of Illinois of behalf of same-sex couples seeking to wed before that time in Cook County. The named plaintiffs in the lawsuit — Elvie Jordan and Challis Gibbs as well as Ronald Dorfman and Ken Ilio — are facing terminal illness.

In her ruling, Coleman invokes the legacy of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., to explain her decision to allow gay couples in Cook County to wed immediately.

“Since the parties agree that marriage is a fundamental right available to all individuals and should not be denied, the focus in this case shifts from the ‘we can’t wait for the terminally ill individuals to ‘why should we wait’ for all gay and lesbian couples who want to marry,” Coleman writes. “To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the time is always ripe to do right.”

Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, praised Coleman for a ruling that he said would bring justice to thousands of same-sex couples.

“Tens of thousands of Illinois couples have been waiting for a long time, some for decades, for their love, commitment and marriage to be recognized,” Cherkasov said. “This day – and the opportunity to finally get married – could not have come sooner. We congratulate all of the couples and their families, and the people of Illinois on this significant day.”

Orr said in a statement the Bureau of Vital Records would be open an extra two hours on Friday until 7 p.m. to accommodate couples seeking to wed in the wake of the court order.

“I’m thrilled same-sex couples who want to get married won’t have to wait any longer,” Orr said. “We are very excited to celebrate this historic milestone with every loving couple from today onward.”

According to Cook County, marriage licenses are valid from the day after issuance and for 60 days, so couples that obtain a marriage license on March 1 may get married between March 2 and April 30.

Moreover, the $60 license fee will be waived for couples already in a civil union. Couples that wish to convert their prior civil union date to a marriage will have to wait until June 1 because it was not addressed in Coleman’s order.

There are differing accounts about the scope of the opinion. Coleman writes her ruling only applies to Cook County because of the nature of the lawsuit.

“Although this court finds that the marriage ban for same-sex couples violates the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause on its face, this finding can only apply to Cook County based on the posture of the lawsuit,” Coleman said.

But LGBT advocates are interpreting the ruling differently and say clerks across Illinois should start affording marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Erik Roldon, a Lambda spokesperson, said no clerk in Illinois has authority to enforce the marriage ban in the aftermath of the decision.

“The law was declared facially unconstitutional,” Roldan said. “That means there are no circumstances under which it can be enforced – in Cook or elsewhere.”

Edwin Yohnka, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Illinois, shared that assessment of the ruling.

“The court found the current marriage ban to be unconstituional,” Yohnka said. “We would hope that all clerks would read that decision. If they do, we believe that they would not want to be in the position of enforcing a law that has been found unconstitutional.”

Gay couples that marry as a result of the court decision would not be the first to do so in Illinois. Vernita Gray and Patricia Ewert married in Cook County in November as a result of a federal court saying they should be afforded a marriage license immediately because Gray has been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer.

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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