Gay couples who want to wed immediately in Illinois because one partner has a life-threatening illness could do so starting today (Dec. 16), rather than waiting until the state's same-sex law takes effect in June.
The change came after U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman expanded on another judge's earlier ruling that allowed a lesbian couple to get married last month in Illinois because one of the women is terminally ill. Coleman's decision means gay couples across the state can marry right away - through the Cook County clerk's office - if they can provide a doctor's note confirming the terminal illness.
Gay rights advocates welcomed Coleman's decision to broaden the medical-emergencies exception, saying it could result in dozens of gay couples marrying soon. Illinois is 16th state to legalize gay marriage, but the same-sex law doesn't take effect until June 1.
Several couples with one ailing partner have previously secured marriage licenses. But, until this week, they first had to seek a judge's order. With Coleman's decision, that's no longer the case, said Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
"For these couples to be able to wed now, without having to go to court and reveal details about the medical condition, is really important," he said.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin issued an order permitting Vernita Gray - who has cancer - to wed Patricia Ewert. They became the first gay couple to wed under Illinois' new.
At a hearing today in Chicago, Coleman effectively expanded that order to apply to other couples in similar circumstances statewide, Yohnka said. At least for now, however, he said they would have to apply through Cook County.
"This Court can conceive of no reason why the public interest would be disserved by allowing a few couples facing terminal illness to wed a few months earlier than the timeline would currently allow," Coleman wrote in her a seven-page opinion posted last week and preceding a final order Monday.
Effectively barring the couples a chance to marry would deprive the surviving partner benefits of others who have a partner who dies, including estate tax obligations, Coleman wrote.
"Equally compelling are the intangible personal and emotional benefits that the dignity of equal and official marriage status confers."
Cook County Clerk David Orr supported the four couples who were plaintiffs in the case, but he sought guidance on how to determine which couples qualified for the exception.
Sixteen states, most recently Illinois and Hawaii, have legalized same-sex marriage. In Illinois, there's legislation pending to allow the law to take effect immediately, and it could come up in late January when lawmakers gather in Springfield.