March 5, 2014 at 6:59 am EST | by Chris Johnson
Illinois AG spells out policy after court ruling on marriage
Lisa Madigan, Illinois, gay news, Washington Blade

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has spelled out state policy following a court ruling on marriage equality. (Photo by John D. Rockefeller IV; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has spelled out state policy in the aftermath of a federal court ruling in her state legalizing same-sex marriage, which the governor and LGBT advocates interpret to mean she has given her OK for gay nuptials throughout the state.

In a March 5 letter, Madigan responds to an inquiry from Macon County Clerk Stephen Bean, who apparently asked her whether he should begin distributing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the wake of the federal court decision last month in Lee v. Orr.

In that ruling, U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, but said the decision only applies to the Chicago-area Cook County. LGBT advocates behind the ruling said the decision applies statewide because it was a facial challenge to the law, although clerks expressed uncertainty about how to act.

Although Madigan never explicitly says marriage licenses should be made available to gay couples everywhere in the state, she recalls her position that “current Illinois restrictions against same-sex marriage violate the equal protection rights that belong to all citizens under the United States Constitution.”

“Even though the ruling in Lee is not binding on you, the protections guaranteed by the Constitution must exist without regard to county lines, and the Lee decision, along with the federal court decisions noted above, should be persuasive as you evaluate whether to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples,” Madigan writes. “Additionally, while the ruling in Lee does not control other courts as binding precedent, we expect Lee to be persuasive to other state or federal trial courts addressing the same questions.”

Madigan writes if another lawsuit arises challenging a county clerk’s refusal to issue a marriage license to a gay couple in Illinois, her office would likely move to intervene, as it did in the Cook County case, and urge the court to follow that holding.

Following the publication of the letter, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn issued a statement saying his administration will now accept marriage licenses from same-sex couples across the state as valid.

“Nobody should have to wait for equal rights when it comes to love. I encourage every county clerk in Illinois to quickly follow the Attorney General’s guidance,” Quinn said. “Following this guidance, the Illinois Department of Public Health will now accept all marriage licenses issued by any county clerk in Illinois.”

Last year, Quinn signed into law a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in the state, but because the bill was passed during a special session, it won’t go into effect until June 1. Gay couples had sued in Cook County to allow gay couples to wed ahead of time.

LGBT advocates jumped on the letter from Madigan as a signal that she’s OK with county clerks distributing marriage licenses statewide even though the new marriage law won’t go into effect for several months.

Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, said the letter “green lights” the ability for gay couples to attain marriage licenses at every county clerk’s office.

“We agree with the Attorney General that the recent federal decision knocking down restrictions on marriage equality as unconstitutional should be the determining factor in clerks’ decisions to issue the licenses before the June 1 effective date of the Illinois Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act,” Cherkasov said.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Cook County had already handed out more than 260 marriage licenses to same-sex couples following the federal court ruling. Champaign County, which lies in central Illinois, had also determined that it could begin distributing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the wake of the Lee decision.

Christopher Clark, a staff attorney with Lambda Legal, concurred Madigan’s letter indicates she’s green lighting the immediate distribution of marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

“The letter does mean that Illinois county clerks outside of Cook County now have a ‘green light’ from the Attorney General to being issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples,” Clark said.

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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