MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - A federal judge
deemed Wisconsin's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional on Friday
to the delight of gay couples who immediately began rushing to county
offices to wed as word of the ruling spread.
The ruling marked the latest in a string of decisions by federal
judges who have struck down gay marriage bans in a number of states,
although the Wisconsin ruling sparked some confusion over whether
such marriages could now legally go ahead.
Clerks in two counties issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples
on Friday night, and in response Wisconsin's attorney general filed
an emergency motion asking the judge to stay her ruling.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that a state constitutional
amendment banning gay marriage, which Wisconsin adopted in 2006,
violates gay couples' fundamental right to marry and their equal
protection rights under the U.S. Constitution.
"Quite simply, this case is about liberty and equality, the two
cornerstones of the rights protected by the United States
Constitution," Crabb wrote.
Milwaukee County issued 68 marriage licenses to same-sex couples on
Friday. Its courthouse stayed open late to allow couples to wed and
66 marriages were performed.
Another 61 marriage licenses were issued to gay couples in Dane
County, which includes the state capital, Madison.
"We will continue to defend the constitutionality of our traditional
marriage laws and the constitutional amendment, which was
overwhelmingly approved by voters," State Attorney General J.B. Van
Hollen said in a statement.
At the Milwaukee County courthouse, Matt Schreck, 37, and Jose
Gutierrez, 35, both from Milwaukee, were the first same-sex couple
married on Friday.
"It's amazing, I get to be with my best friend for the rest of my
life," Schreck said.
Dozens of people crowded inside the courthouse to be married, amid
clapping and tears, including Pat Cline, 51, and Patty McKenzie, 46,
both from Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
"We never thought this day would happen. It's overwhelming," Cline
said. The pair had planned to go to PrideFest Milwaukee, but decided
to get married instead.
The Milwaukee County clerk plans to be open Saturday to issue
marriage licenses to gay couples from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and the Dane
County clerk from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Challenges to state bans on same-sex marriage gathered momentum last
June when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of the U.S.
Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that legally married same-sex
couples were eligible for federal benefits. Not including Wisconsin,
same-sex marriage is now legal in 19 states plus the District of
Columbia, and the number of states could grow sharply if federal
court rulings striking down bans in several states are upheld on
appeal. On Friday, seven same-sex couples filed a federal lawsuit
challenging North Dakota's ban on same-sex marriage. North Dakota
was the last state where a ban on same-sex marriage still in effect
had not been challenged.
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Sandra
Maler and Michael Perry)