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Same-sex marriages officially begin in Illinois

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Madison County issues same sex marriage licenses

Zina Bland (right) reacts with joy as she and her partner, Donna Bland, convert their civil union certificate to a marriage license in at the Madison County clerk's office on Monday, June 2, 2014. The couple, who have been together more than 20 years, committed by civil union about 2 years ago. Vital Records clerk Jennifer Ferguson (left) assists them. Photo by Christian Gooden,

County clerks in the Metro East will open their doors this morning prepared to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

“We are good to go,” said Madison County Clerk Debra D. Ming-Mendoza.

She and most of the clerks in Illinois’ 102 counties have had nearly seven months to prepare.

Illinois became the 16th state to legalize same-sex marriage when Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill into law last November.

But the action came with a caveat: The new law would go into effect June 1. Because the bill did not pass with a large enough majority in the House, it could not be implemented immediately.

That condition sparked a lawsuit by couples in Cook County, where a judge ruled in February that there was no reason to delay issuing marriage licenses. As a result, 15 other counties agreed not to wait, including St. Clair County, where 20 licenses have been issued.

County Clerk Tom Holbrook said he is not expecting a long line of same-sex couples this morning in Belleville. But the unknown is how many of the 200 couples who were issued civil union licenses since June 2011 will want to come in and convert them to marriage licenses, the first day they will be able to do so.

Ming-Mendoza said her office has reprogrammed its computers so that couples can convert their civil unions to marriages and changed marriage forms to give couples choices on how they want to be referred: bride and groom; bride and bride; groom and groom; or partner and partner.

The law officially went into effect on Sunday, and at least five counties were expected to open their offices to issue marriage licenses. But most counties, including Madison and Monroe, will begin today. Holbrook said there was no need to hold special hours in St. Clair County since his office has been issuing them for nearly three months.

Illinois joins 18 other states and Washington, D.C., in legalizing same-sex marriage. Ten years ago – May 17, 2004 — Massachusetts became the first state to begin marrying same-sex couples.

The shift in the political landscape surrounding same-sex marriage has been most pronounced in the past year.

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, stating that the federal government must recognize legal marriages between those of same-sex couples. That decision stopped short of saying gay marriage should be legal in every state. However, in a separate ruling the same day, the high court cleared the way for same-sex marriages to continue in California, after a lengthy legal battle.

Since then, 14 federal judges have declared same-sex marriage bans illegal. While most of those decisions have been appealed, the judgments last month in Oregon and Pennsylvania were not.

Now, nearly 44 percent of Americans are living in states that offer same-sex marriage.

Throughout the country, there are 70 active lawsuits challenging same-sex marriage laws in 30 states, including one in Missouri.

On Feb. 12, a lawsuit was filed asking a circuit judge in Kansas City to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples in Missouri who were wed in other states and countries where the unions are legal. The suit filed by the ACLU of Missouri on behalf of eight couples is not asking the judge to declare unconstitutional the ban voters approved in 2004.

With suits filed in Montana and South Dakota last month, North Dakota stands alone as the only state with a ban that has not been challenged.

Tony Rothert, legal director for the ACLU of Missouri, said the next step in the Kansas City case comes Sept. 25, when a motion for summary judgment — a decision without a trial — will be heard. Since the suit was filed, two more gay couples have joined as plaintiffs, he said.

Of the 19 lawsuits that have been ruled on in the last year across the country, all have been in favor of those fighting the marriage bans.

“I certainly don’t want Missouri to be the case that goes the wrong way,” Rothert said. “I don’t think it will be.”

Marc Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, said that with so many cases working their way through the legal system, “ultimately the Supreme Court will finish the job. We think the country is ready for a nationwide ruling.”

And he thinks based on the growing support across the country for same-sex marriage, the decision will be one that his organization has been fighting for for years.

“As it is now, it makes no sense. You can live in Belleville and be legally married but commute to downtown St. Louis and be treated as legal strangers,” Solomon said. “The patchwork of laws is unsustainable, it’s wrong and it doesn’t make sense.”

Even those who have long fought to keep marriage between one woman and one man are conceding that marriage for same-sex couples will ultimately be recognized nationwide. Last week, Orrin Hatch, a longtime U.S. Senator from Utah, joined the ranks.

“Let’s face it: anybody who does not believe that gay marriage is going to be the law of the land just hasn’t been observing what’s going on,” Hatch said.

Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, said those against it are finally realizing that “none of those doomsday scenarios are coming true. All that fear-mongering was just that.”

That said, 28 states still have constitutional bans and the results of a Washington Post/ABC News poll released in March show that 50 percent of Americans say the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection gives gays the right to marry, while 41 percent say it does not.


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Doug Moore is a former reporter for the P-D. Currently, policy director for St. Louis County Council.

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