CHICAGO – Same-sex couples in Illinois' largest county can begin applying for marriage licenses immediately, according to a federal judge's ruling Friday that some attorneys said could give county clerks statewide a reason to also issue marriage certificates right away.
Illinois approved same-sex marriage last year; the new law takes effect June 1. However, U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman ruled Friday that same-sex marriages can begin in Cook County, where Chicago is located.
"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," she wrote in the order.
The decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed against Cook County Clerk David Orr, who supports gay marriage.
Coleman already ruled in December that same-sex couples did not have to wait until June to marry if one or both partners had a life-threatening illness. Several same-sex couples married after that ruling. Advocates for same-sex marriage immediately celebrated the ruling.
Orr said his office would be open two hours later on Friday, until 7 p.m., to accommodate any couples who would want to get married after work.
"This is a day that's been a long time coming. It's an historical day," he said at a news conference. "We're now open for equal marriage in the county of Cook."
The judge's decision specifies that it only applies to Cook County. But attorneys for Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, who filed the lawsuit, said there was guidance for clerks statewide.
Christopher Clark, counsel at Lambda Legal in Chicago, said the fact that a federal judge said the state's marriage ban was unconstitutional by violating the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment could be a signal to other county clerks who have to uphold the law.
"It's an enormous victory," he said. "We're thrilled."
But there was still confusion Friday as county clerks across the state were sorting out what the decision could mean for them. Madison County Clerk Debra Ming-Mendoza in southwestern Illinois said she hadn't seen the ruling yet and wanted the state's attorney to take a look at it.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed the marriage law in November after attempts earlier in the year had stalled in the state Legislature.
"Every county across the state should enjoy the same freedom without having to wait until June," he said in a Friday statement.
Same-sex marriage legislation was fought hard by some of Illinois' most well-recognized religious figures, including Cardinal Francis George of the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Rev. James Meeks, a former state senator who runs a politically influential megachurch in Chicago.
Meeks was part of a group of black pastors who said marriage should remain between a man and woman and sponsored robocall campaigns in several legislative districts.
Although Illinois once appeared poised to become the first Midwestern state to approve gay marriage in the Legislature, Minnesota did it sooner and started holding its first same-sex weddings over the summer. Iowa allows gay marriages too, because of a court ruling, not a legislative vote.