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First Cook County gay wedding ceremonies are 'historic'

The line of couples waiting to wed in circuit court Saturday morning wasn't longer than usual, court clerks said. What was unusual was that — for the first time in Cook County or Illinois — it included several same-sex couples with a license to marry.

Some held bouquets, wore white dresses or gray suits, and were accompanied by family or friends, but any trappings of a familiar wedding scene had to come together quickly for these couples. A federal judge Friday allowed Cook County to issue marriage licenses months before a state marriage law is scheduled to take effect.

Greg Gale, 62, said he scrambled to put appropriate wedding attire together — he decided on a light-colored suit and red tie — Saturday morning after he and his now-husband, Chris Ferguson, 61, decided in the early morning hours to marry after driving to the Cook County clerk's office Friday to be among the first to get their license.

After the four-minute ceremony, the smiling couple of more than 20 years, from Bloomingdale, reflected on the day's significance.

"It's historic," said Gale. "Yesterday morning I had filled out an application to get married in Iowa because it was legal there, (but) we wanted to do it here, where we live. It's just a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

Paperwork in hand, Lisa Martin and Vicki Kenyon waited in line at the court office, casual in jeans and sweaters. After 13 years together, the couple were relieved to "upgrade the relationship status," Kenyon said, from a civil union to marriage.

"It's just kind of neat to be part of the first people doing it," said Kenyon, 46, adding that because she travels often for work, "having that legal protection is really important to us."

U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman's ruling was announced late Friday morning, drawing 46 gay couples to the lower level of the Daley Center to get a marriage license. Thanks to a waiver from a judge, Cook County Clerk David Orr even married a couple Friday, giving them red roses to celebrate.

Flanked by their 9-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, Theresa Volpe and Mercedes Santos held hands as Orr officiated at their marriage ceremony in his office in the Loop. The couple were part of a previous lawsuit over gay union rights and had testified in Springfield on behalf of gay marriage.

The state's first gay marriage was Nov. 27, when Chicagoans Vernita Gray and Patricia Ewert wed after a federal court ordered the Cook County clerk to immediately issue them a license because Gray was battling terminal cancer. Gray and Ewert had filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court arguing that they should be granted the right to marry immediately.

The women, both in their mid-60s, had been in a committed relationship for more than five years and in 2011 entered into a civil union. Gray has lived in Illinois all her life and has terminal breast cancer. It was her last wish to be formally married to her partner, the couple's attorneys said at the time.

But Saturday was the first day most couples could wed because Illinois licenses, which are valid for 60 days, require couples to wait a calendar day before marrying. Couples in an Illinois civil union can get a marriage license with its $60 fee waived.

The ruling applies only to Cook County, but couples like Gale and Ferguson who live in other counties can get their license in Cook County if they also are married in the county, Orr said.

Gov. Pat Quinn signed the state's same-sex marriage bill into law Nov. 20 during a ceremony at the University of Illinois at Chicago attended by more than 2,000 supporters. Since then, at least two couples have been granted the right to marry before the June 1 deadline because one partner faced a life-threatening medical condition. In her decision announced Friday, 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."

On Saturday, more than 20 same-sex couples were married in the three hours the First Municipal District Marriage and Civil Union Court in downtown Chicago was open for ceremonies, Court Clerk Michele Roberts said.

Tribune reporter Juan Perez Jr. contributed.

mmanchir@tribune.com | Twitter: @TribuneMM

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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