CHICAGO — Champaign County began issuing same-sex marriage licenses Wednesday, making it the second county to do so after a federal judge ruled Cook County gay couples did not have to wait until the state's new gay marriage law takes effect this summer.
The ruling last week stemmed from a lawsuit against Cook County Clerk David Orr and applied only to Cook County, which includes Chicago. However, U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman also said the state's gay marriage ban is unconstitutional, which legal experts said other counties could use as a reason to issue marriage licenses right away.
Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten said he decided to issue the licenses after consulting with county attorneys. Champaign County, in central Illinois, is one of the state's more populated counties and home to Urbana.
"If the state statute is unconstitutional in Cook County, it's unconstitutional in Champaign County," Hulten said, adding that he wanted to spare taxpayers the expense of a potential legal challenge.
The county's first license to a same-sex couple went to third-year law students Laura Meli, 27, and Marissa Meli, 28, both of Urbana. The women, who have a civil union, have been together for more than eight years.
They said they didn't expect Champaign County to issue them a license until June, so they drove to a Cook County office in Chicago last week following the judge's ruling.
But Laura Meli said it was bittersweet because they wanted the license issued where they live and have worked. After hearing the news about Champaign County, they headed over the local clerk's office.
"It means everything," Laura Meli said of the new license.
The couple, set to graduate from the College of Law at the University of Illinois, say they'll let the Cook-issued license expire and soon have a local judge officiate their marriage in Champaign County.
Advocates celebrated the county's decision.
"It is simply time for the other county clerks to follow suit," Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, said in a statement. " ... Gay and lesbian couples are eager and ready to take the step that not only grants them and their family the legal benefits and rights of marriage but also bestows society's recognition that their love is equal."
However, officials in a number of other counties have said they'll wait until June 1.
More than half a dozen counties in central Illinois — Sangamon, Logan, Cass, Morgan, Macoupin, Montgomery and Christian — said they'd comply with the new law as written, the (Springfield) State Journal-Register (http://bit.ly/1hyMQkC ) reported.
"We're just going to follow the law," Sangamon County Clerk Joe Aiello told the newspaper.
Same-sex marriage legislation was strenuously opposed by some of Illinois' most well-recognized religious figures, including Cardinal Francis George of the Archdiocese of Chicago. The head of the conservative Illinois Family Institute has said that the judge's ruling circumvented the political process unnecessarily.
But the state's top leaders, including Gov. Pat Quinn, who signed the same-sex marriage legislation late last year, said they hoped more counties follow suit.
Illinois' first same-sex couple to wed — Vernita Gray and her partner of five years, Patricia Ewert — did so in late November. An expedited license was granted because Gray was terminally ill with cancer. Several other gay couples have been able to wed early for the same reason, both with expedited licenses and an earlier ruling from Coleman in December.
Associated Press writer Carla K. Johnson contributed to this report from Chicago.
Follow Sophia Tareen on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen.