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'Nothing But Joy' as Gay Marriage Opens in Cook County

By  Serena Dai and Quinn Ford | February 21, 2014 12:34pm | Updated on February 21, 2014 8:19pm

 Forty-six same-sex couples received marriage licenses Friday after a federal judge ruled to move up the new law's effective date.
Same-Sex Marriage
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THE LOOP — When Chloe Koren got word from a friend that a federal judge ruled same-sex couples in Cook County could begin getting married Friday, her response was automatic.

"I didn't even think," Koren, 24 said. "I just messaged, 'We need to do this.'"

Jenna Whitehouse, her partner, who got the message at work, said she didn't hesitate either.

"I messaged her back, 'Yeah, we need to do this,'" Whitehouse, 27, said.

The couple was one of 46 couples to get a marriage license Friday following U.S. Judge Sharon J. Coleman's decision to change the effective date of Illinois' same-sex marriage law.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act last November, which stated the law would take effect June 1, 2014, but a lawsuit brought by a same-sex couple against Cook County Clerk David Orr challenged the effective date.

Orr, who supports gay marriage, did not offer a defense in the suit. Coleman's ruling only affects Cook County, not the entire state.

Beginning at about 12:30 p.m. Friday, a steady stream of couples came to the Cook County Bureau of Vital Records, which stayed open an extra two hours for people wanting to obtain a marriage license.

Koren and Whitehouse, who have been together for more than two years, got a civil union in 2013, but Koren said there was no doubt the two would take the next step when they could.

She likened marriage to Mount Everest and civil unions to K2, the second-tallest mountain in the world.

"It was like thinking you reached the top of the mountain and then seeing there was another mountain beyond it," Koren said. "It's awesome, but it's not Everest."

And Koren said there is the obvious benefit of legal rights. Her home state of South Carolina, for example, does not recognize civil unions. There are also benefits when it comes to taxes as well, Whitehouse said.

"Have you ever tried filing taxes with a civil union? It's hell," she said.

Louisa Nicotera, a supervisor at the bureau of vital records, has been with the clerk's office for 30 years, she said. Nicotera issued the first civil union in 2011 and also the first marriage license on Friday.

She had one word for the event: "momentous."

"You can see they're all in love," Nicotera said of the 46 couples who obtained licenses Friday. "In the past, I've seen happy couples, sad couples, couples that aren't going to make it, but today's been nothing but joy."

Shawn Gancarz and Andrew Hinkle were one of the couples who smiled as reporters snapped photos of them stepping up to the counter to get their license.

Gancarz and Hinkle said the rush to get a marriage license meant not they couldn't include people important to them: their parents.

"They wanted to be here for this, so they'll be bummed," Hinkle, 28, said.

Gancarz, 25, said the two had been together for five years and engaged for the past two. He said they had been planning on entering a civil union, so when news broke Friday, they figured they'd skip that step.

Like other couples, Hinkle said the legal protections that come with marriage are nice, but the cultural significance is also important.

"Marriage is a cornerstone in our society," he said. "It's the most significant commitment you can make that we recognize."

In addition to civil rights activists, politicians around the state praised the judge's ruling Friday.

"Many couples in Illinois have waited long enough for marriage equality, and today's ruling means thousands of Illinois couples no longer have to wait," said Quinn in a statement.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel also praised the decision, saying he "looks forward to the day every American enjoys the same freedom to marry."

"Chicago welcomes all couples to get married here to celebrate their love and to have the bonds of their family acknowledged under law," Emanuel said in a statement.

Couples must wait at least a day after getting a license to get married, and a marriage license issued by the clerk's office is valid for 60 days, a spokesperson said. The $60 license fee will be waived to any couple who has an Illinois civil union.

Couples who live outside Cook County can get their marriage license from the clerk's office as long as the marriage ceremony is performed in Cook County.