St. Clair County plans to issue marriage licenses to gay couples; Madison County will wait

From staff and wire reportsMarch 5, 2014 

Metro-east county clerks are divided on whether to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples immediately as Attorney General Lisa Madigan said this week they have the right to do.

St. Clair County Clerk Tom Holbrook said his office was accepting applications for marriage from same sex couples as per Madigan's advice. The applications will be reviewed by St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly to ensure they meet the criteria for marriage, then the Clerk's Office will issue the couple a marriage license.

Madison County Clerk Debra Ming-Mendoza said she has been advised to wait, even after Madigan's letter.

"To be honest, I haven't seen her letter, but I understand that it's specific to the counties that asked the question," Ming-Mendoza said. "My state's attorney says that until there's something specific to Madison County ... his recommendation is to wait until June 1."

Ming-Mendoza said her concern is possible liability, that someone could sue the county if she issues a document that the county doesn't legally have the authority to issue yet. Instead, she said, she'd like to see the legislature simply move the date up and eliminate the question.

"I'm not against this move at all," Ming-Mendoza said. "I'm happy to issue a license to anyone who wishes to get married, but I'm uncomfortable doing so before the law says I can."

Ming-Mendoza said she has gotten phone calls all morning from people asking whether Madison County will be issuing same-sex marriage licenses early. When she tells them her decision, she said, they seem fine with it. "They say they'll go to Chicago," she said. "I tell them congratulations and good luck."

Several other clerks around Illinois say they won't start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Many worry that doing so before the new law takes effect in June could put their offices at risk of lawsuits and perhaps hurt the couples themselves. In interviews with about a dozen clerks, only one -- Macon County Clerk Stephen Bean -- said he would begin as soon as he has proper software installed for the forms that need to be filled out. Bean said the first marriage license might be issued as early as Friday.

As for the others, they said they would not follow the lead of Cook and Champaign counties, which have already started issuing licenses, or McLean County, which will start March 24.

Instead, they say they are likely to wait until June 1, when the state's new same-sex marriage law takes effect. And some say they will wait for an opinion by their state's attorneys before they make a final decision.

"The law did not change and if they (state lawmakers) want these marriages to be effective earlier than June 1, someone needs to change it legislatively," said Katherine Schultz, the clerk in McHenry County in northern Illinois. "The law is very clear, very definite."

Clerks said possible lawsuits might be costly and that if any legal challenge proved to be successful, it could put couples at risk of losing insurance and other legal benefits that come with marriage.

"The law says what the law says, and what if down the road they lose the benefits they are trying to reap?" Georgia Volm, the clerk of Adams County in western Illinois asked. "I want to protect them (same-sex couples) and I don't want to ruin it for them because of a date."

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