Judge Says Chicago Marriage Equality Can Start Immediately

Same-sex couples in Cook County, Ill., don't have to wait until June to get married, according to a federal judge's ruling today.

BY Sunnivie Brydum

February 21 2014 1:00 PM ET UPDATED: February 28 2014 4:34 PM ET

Vernita Gray, left, and Patricia Ewert take part in the Advocate's Day in LGBT America photo essay. 

A federal judge in llinois has just declared that same-sex couples can begin marrying immediately in Cook County, which includes Chicago and the surrounding area, reports the Chicago Sun-Times

U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman said in a ruling filed this morning that there is no justifiable reason for same-sex couples to wait to begin marrying until the state's marriage equality law, passed last November, takes effect in June. 

"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 said in her ruling, which appears to only apply to Cook County, according to local news sources.

Coleman's ruling responds to a class-action suit filed by Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of same-sex couples residing in Cook County, the state's most populous county, who wish to marry before the marriage equality law takes effect. The suit formally named Cook County clerk David Orr and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan as defendants, though both officials declined to defend the delay and agreed with plaintiffs that they should be allowed to marry immediately, according to BuzzFeed.

As such, Coleman's ruling recognizes that "There is no dispute here that the ban on same-sex marriage violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and infringes on the plaintiffs’ fundamental right to marry. Indeed, the defendant and intervenor have joined in plaintiffs’ motion, with the caveat the defendant David Orr is bound to follow the law in Illinois." 

"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 terminally ill individuals to 'why should we wait' for all gay and lesbian couples that want to marry," continues Coleman's ruling. "To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: the time is always ripe to do right." 

Therefore, Coleman concludes, "This Court has no trepidation that marriage is a fundamental right to be equally enjoyed by all individuals of consenting age regardless of their race, religion, or sexual orientation, and the public policy of this State has been duly amended to reflect that position."

In December, Coleman ruled that same-sex couples in which one partner had a life-threatening illness could take advantage of the state's marriage equality law before it took effect in June, following a November court order from another federal judge that allowed Vernita Gray, 64, and Patricia Ewert, 65, to become the first same-sex couple to marry in Illinois

Although Coleman's latest ruling technically applies only to Cook County since that's where the plaintiffs reside, Illinois LGBT advocates are already encouraging county clerks statewide to abide by the decision and begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples immediately. 

“We believe that other counties should abide by the ruling," ACLU of Illinois communications and public policy director Edwin C. Yohnka told BuzzFeed. "The ruling holds that the current marriage law is unconstitutional."

Both Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Illinois issued enthusiastic statements Friday afternoon celebrating the latest ruling. 

"We’re thrilled that Judge Coleman recognized the serious harm to the many Illinois families from continuing to deny them the freedom to marry," said John Knight, LGBT and AIDS Project director for the ACLU of Illinois in a statement. “The U.S. Constitution guarantees these families the personal and emotional benefits as well as the critical legal protections of marriage now, and we are thankful that the court extended this dignity to couples immediately."

"The wait is over! We are thrilled that the court recognized the unfairness of forcing same-sex couples to wait for months to marry," said Christopher Clark, counsel for Lambda Legal in the same statement. "Justice has prevailed and full equality is no longer delayed for Illinoisans who wish to marry in Cook County before June 1."

"What's important is that there's no reason to wait, and that waiting has consequences," Marc Solomon, national campaign director at Freedom to Marry, tells The Advocate. "That's why getting the issue resolved once and for all nationwide is so important — because the wait has real consequences in the lives of people every single day. For instance, not being able to see their kids get married, couples where someone passes away, and those both have really meaningful and personal consequences, as well as sometimes serious financial hardships. That's why the wait is difficult, and even as we talk so much about how quickly our movement is going, how quickly the cause is advancing, waiting another day, another week, or in this case, another several months, is definitely a burden."

This story is developing. Check back for additional details.

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