CHICAGO (AP) -- Gay couples who want to wed immediately in Illinois because one partner has a life-threatening illness could do so starting Monday - rather than waiting until the state's same-sex law takes effect in June - after a U.S. judge broadened the medical exception statewide.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman's final order on the matter, issued at a hearing in Chicago on Monday, comes in the wake of another judge's recent ruling allowing a lesbian couple to get married last month in Illinois because one of the women is terminally ill.
Coleman's ruling in the class-action lawsuit means any couple in Illinois can apply to marry right away - via the Cook County clerk's office - if they can provide a doctor's note confirming one partner is terminally ill.
The four couples named as plaintiffs, all of whom are from Cook County, include Elvie Jordan and Challis Gibbs, who recently entered a civil union. Gibbs has cancer and may not live until June, according to the complaint.
"When I die, I want Elvie to be able to say, `I lost my wife.' I don't want her to have to say, `I lost my civil union partner,'" it quotes Gibbs as saying.
Gay rights advocates welcomed Coleman's decision, saying it could result in dozens of gay couples marrying soon. Illinois is the 16th state to legalize gay marriage, but the same-sex law doesn't take effect until June 1.
"Marriage means so much to them," Camilla B. Taylor, one of several plaintiffs' attorneys, said on Monday. "To know they will get their own measure of joy is a great joy."
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 law.
Couples living outside Cook County must apply through the Cook County clerk's office and marry in Cook County, because it was the subject of the lawsuit, said James Scalzitti a spokesman for the office. The marriages would be valid throughout the state.
"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 an opinion posted last week and preceding final orders.
Barring the couples from marrying would unfairly deprive the surviving partner benefits, including estate tax obligations, she said.
"Equally compelling are the intangible personal and emotional benefits that the dignity of equal and official marriage status confers," she wrote.
Cook County Clerk David Orr has long supported same-sex marriage and, even though he and his office were named as defendants, he supported the plaintiffs. He sought guidance, however, 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.
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