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Champaign County Now Issuing Same-Sex Marriage Licenses

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Marissa Meli, 28, and Laura Meli, 27, have been in a relationship for more than eight years, and on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 became the first same-sex couple in Champaign County to get a marriage license.

Marissa Meli, 28, and Laura Meli, 27, have been in a relationship for more than eight years, and on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 became the first same-sex couple in Champaign County to get a marriage license. (Sean Powers/WILL)

Champaign County is the second county in Illinois to start issuing marriage licenses before June 1. That’s when a state law says same-sex couples can marry. 

A federal judge ruled last week that Illinois' same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional. That ruling applied to Cook County.

But Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten said after speaking with the local state’s attorney, he decided same-sex couples in the area can immediately get marriage licenses. Hulten said he's consulted with attorneys and decided if the original law is unconstitutional in Cook County, then it is unconstitutional in Champaign County.

“We worked through this for four or five days including over the weekend, and I’m happy that we were able to be in agreement on a path moving forward," Hulten said. "And we’re confident that what we’re doing is the right thing to do, that it’s legally justifiable, and we’re all very comfortable with this path moving forward.”

Urbana residents Marissa and Laura Meli, both law students at the University of Illinois, were the first same-sex couple in Champaign County to get a marriage license. They have been together for more than eight years, and they say they have been waiting for this day for a long time.

"I can't believe that I'm able to do it in the town where I go to law school, where I've made friends, and where I live, and with the people that I love," Marissa said. "That I have a fully integrated community that's totally accepting of me and my partner and that we have the same rights as everybody else. I feel like things are finally complete in my life."

Marissa and Laura drove two hours to Chicago on Friday to get a marriage license after a federal judge ruled the state's gay marriage ban was unconstitutional and Cook County couples could wed immediately.

"We hadn't gotten married in Cook County, so I don't know what we'll do with that license," Laura said. "Frame it or something, but we'll be turning this license in and exchanging it for a real marriage."

They have 60 days to use their marriage license. They plan to get married in April, but have a larger wedding later.

Champaign resident Elaine Mitchell said she was surprised and relieved to hear the news on Wednesday that she and her partner, Andrea, can get married after being together for nearly 13 years. They are raising five children, and Mitchell said while she does not know if they’ll get married, she hopes being able to do so leads to other opportunities.

“I’m hoping that this translates into other things; that they start a curriculum in the school that accounts for people who have two moms or two dads," Mitchell said. "You know, so that when it’s Father’s Day or when it’s Mother’s Day my kids have something to bring home. You know what I’m saying? So that it becomes part of our culture. It isn’t something that’s sort of aside and different.” 

Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov praised Wednesday's decision.

"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,"  he said.  "It is also significant that the licenses are now available in a Central Illinois county, which is within easy driving distance of not only Champaign-Urbana but also Peoria, Decatur, Springfield, Bloomington-Normal and Danville for couples and their families."

Another downstate Illinois county said it hopes to issue marriage licenses to gay couples earlier than expected. McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael said she hopes to be issuing licenses by the middle of next week.

“It’s legal, if there’s an illness, to be granted a marriage license of same-sex, now," Michael said. "Why would it be delayed ‘till June First, when there are exceptions that are already being made?"

Meanwhile, more than half a dozen central Illinois counties will issue licenses in June when the new same-sex marriage law takes effect. Those counties include Sangamon, Logan, Edgar, Cass, Morgan, Macoupin, Montgomery and Christian.