URBANA — Third-year law students Laura Meli and Marissa Meli Wednesday became the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in Champaign County.
Their bid for local history followed less than an hour County Clerk Gordy Hulten's announcement that he would begin issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples immediately.
By the end of the day two more same-sex couples had filed for marriage licenses at Hulten's office.
Champaign County became the second county in the state to make same-sex marriage legal. Cook County was the first to do so last Friday after a federal court ruling by U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman. In her order, Coleman wrote that "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."
Here is the original complaint filed in Cook County seeking to allow same-sex marriage.
Here is the memorandum in which Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan supports the plaintiffs' position.
Here is Cook County Clerk David Orr's memo saying he would not fight the lawsuit.
Here is U.S. Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman's ruling issued Friday.
Same-sex marriage, under legislation approved last fall, was to have begun in Illinois on June 1.
"However, after consulting with State's Attorney Julia Rietz, I have come to the conclusion that the rationale of the case applies to all citizens of Illinois and that Champaign County residents should have no fewer Constitutional rights than those in Cook County," Hulten said in a statement. "Furthermore, given the ruling, denying a license to a same sex couple would provide no benefit to the County and would likely result in litigation at taxpayer expense."
Rietz said Wednesday that she had spent hours on the telephone with Hulten, discussing the legalities of his decision.
"My husband was getting really annoyed because we were on the phone all weekend," she laughed.
Hulten's decision could be challenged, Rietz said, even though same-sex marriage statewide is an inevitability.
"I read an article about a Pennsylvania judge who ordered a clerk to stop issuing same-sex couples marriage license," she said. "But everything is subject to litigation either way.
"Gordy's concern was, because one of the options was to say that if someone came in seeking a marriage license before June 1 that he could deny them and they could go in and file an injunction citing the Cook County case," Rietz said. "But he wasn't comfortable with telling somebody 'No, go sue us.'
"But on the other side somebody could file a request for an injunction, asking that a judge order him to stop issuing marriage licenses (to same sex couples). We'll have to wait and see."
Rietz said she would defend Hulten's decision, if there is a court challenge.
"I represent the county clerk," she said.
One legal argument in favor of Hulten's decision is that because the Illinois attorney general's office was involved in the Cook County case, "what applies in Cook County therefore applies in the whole state," Rietz said.
Other organizations, including Lambda Legal, researched the issue "and provided Gordy with a brief," she said.
Ultimately, she said, the decision was Hulten's.
"I don't tell any county official, 'Yes, you can' or 'No, you can't.' My job is to tell them the legal arguments. But this is his final decision.
"I didn't say, 'I wouldn't do this if I were you.' I agree with him, but the final decision is his. Hopefully people will see that this is the direction the state is going. It will be statewide as of June 1. Why should people have to go up to Cook County? Why should Cook County be any different than another part of the state of Illinois?"
Hulten said he hoped other Illinois counties "will see what we're doing and look at our rationale for it and understand what we're doing and follow our lead," he said.
Hulten said he had received "a handful" of inquiries from same-sex couples about marriage licenses since Friday's court ruling.
"I don't have any concerns," said Hulten, a Republican. "What's unconstitutional is unconstitutional. If it's unconstitutional in Chicago, it's unconstitutional here. I don't see any reason for someone to have to sue us in order for us to realize that."
Laura Meli, 27, originally from Chicago, said she and her partner Marissa, 28, originally from Green Bay, received the marriage license Wednesday but would be married later.
"Today ... we saw on Facebook that Champaign County had decided to legalize marriage for everybody," she said. "We were just getting out of bed and were headed to class (at the University of Illinois) and we drove over here because we wanted to be Number One. We got out. We look terrible but it's really super important to us.
"We're blessed. We're so happy to have the marriage solemnized here in Champaign because it's been our home for the last three years and all our friends and colleagues our down here."
Laura Meli said they already had received a marriage license in Cook County on Friday "but we didn't get it solemnized. We could have extended the option to get married but we didn't. We just have the piece of paper that says we can.
"But we got one today from Champaign and we're actually going to execute it in Champaign."
They have 60 days to execute the marriage license, she said.
"It's really important for my sister to be here, and she's studying abroad in London now, so we're waiting for her to get back and then we'll do it sometime in April," Laura Meli said. "Judge (Arnold) Blockman officiated at our civil union last February. We're law students and don't have a lot of money so what we're planning on doing is legally tying the knot sometime in the next 60 days and then next year, when we have a little bit more time to plan and money, we'll have a full-blown ceremony.
"We're third-year and we're studying for the bar and there's just not a lot of time."
Hulten, currently unopposed for reelection this fall, said there was nothing political about his order.
"This is the right thing to do," he said. "It's the right thing to do in terms of the law, based on the Friday court case."
A marriage license in Champaign County is $75, Hulten said, but if a couple has a civil union, a marriage license from Champaign County will be free.
"The logic is that they've already paid for something once," he said.
Chicago-based Equality Illinois this morning praised Hulten for his decision, and called on other county clerks to begin issuing licenses.
"Clerk Hulten recognized both the humanity of helping gay and lesbian couples to fulfill their dreams and the legal soundness of following the decision of a federal court that denying marriage licenses was unconstitutional," said Bernard Cherkasov, the chief executive officer of Equality Illinois.
"It is simply time for the other county clerks to follow suit," said Cherkasov. "As we saw in the immediate rush to the Cook County clerk's marriage bureau after Friday's ruling, gay and lesbian couples are eager and ready to take the step that not only grants them and their family the legal benefits and rights of marriage but also bestows society's recognition that their love is equal."