Central Illinois county allows gay marriage, follows Chicago ruling

By Mary Wisniewski CHICAGO (Reuters) - Same-sex couples in the central Illinois county that includes the state's largest university can get a marriage license immediately and won't have to wait to tie the knot until a state law legalizing gay marriage takes effect in June, the county clerk said Wednesday. The decision by the Champaign County clerk followed a federal judge's ruling last week that allowed same-sex couples in Cook County, which includes Chicago, to wed immediately. The immediate opening of marriage rights to a second Illinois county came hours before a federal judge ruled a Texas ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. The Texas ruling was put on hold, pending appeal. Illinois lawmakers approved same-sex marriage in late 2013, to take effect June 1, but U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman in Chicago ruled on Friday there was no reason to delay gay couples' "fundamental right" to marry. Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten, a Republican who supports gay marriage, said he hoped other Illinois counties would follow suit. He said his county had received several inquiries about gay marriage since the Chicago ruling, and he huddled with his legal team to decide what to do. "We decided unconstitutional in Cook County meant unconstitutional everywhere in Illinois," Hulten said in a telephone interview. "We were not going to force someone to sue us." Laura Meli and Marissa Meli were the first gay couple to get a marriage license Wednesday in Champaign County, which includes the University of Illinois, Hulten said. The News-Gazette newspaper identified the two as law students. Support for gay marriage has surged in the United States in the decade since it became legal in Massachusetts, with 53 percent of Americans now supporting it, up from 32 percent in 2003, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute released on Wednesday. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now recognize gay marriage in a movement that has gained momentum since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that legally married same-sex couples are eligible for federal benefits. Coleman had ruled in December that Cook County same-sex couples could get an emergency marriage license before June if one partner had a life-threatening illness. On Friday, she said the Illinois ban on same-sex marriage until June violated couples' rights to equal protection under the U.S. Constitution, but the finding only applied to Cook County, based on the case before her. (Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; editing by Gunna Dickson)