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Judge's order lets same-sex couple marry early

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013 11:45 a.m. CDT

CHICAGO (MCT) — A same-sex Chicago couple will be allowed to marry this week, seven months before the state's new law goes into effect, after a federal court ordered that the Cook County clerk immediately issue them a license, officials said.

Vernita Gray and Patricia Ewert will be issued their license early because Gray is battling terminal cancer, their attorneys said.

County Clerk David Orr said he would comply with Monday's order by U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin.

"This has been an amazingly wonderful surprise and we are thrilled beyond belief," Ewert said. "The judge was an amazing human being who understands our struggle. I'm surprised, happy, delighted."

Orr said he also welcomed the ruling.

"As a supporter of same-sex marriage, I'm pleased Judge Durkin granted relief to Patricia Ewert and Vernita Gray in this difficult time," he said in a statement.

Administrators from Orr's office hand-delivered the paperwork for a marriage license to the women's home Monday night, officials said. The couple have not announced their plans for a ceremony, but they are expected to wed this week.

"We're very happy for this ruling for this couple," said John Knight, director of the LGBT Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. "We understand that this is an incredibly important right for all same-sex couples. If it had not been granted, it would ... likely have been unavailable to them. Ms. Gray is simply too ill to wait until June to marry."

Last week, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a measure legalizing same-sex marriage in Illinois. While the law was celebrated, it doesn't take effect until June 2014.

Gray, 64, and Ewert, 65, filed a lawsuit Friday in U.S. District Court arguing that they should be granted the right to marry immediately. The women have been in a committed relationship for more than five years and in 2011 entered into a civil union.

Gray has lived in Illinois all her life and has terminal breast cancer. It was her last wish to be formally married to her partner, the couple's attorney's said.

"They have had a civil union, but marriage is a value that is important to them," said Camilla Taylor, marriage project director for Lambda Legal, which also represented the couple in court. "To be married here in Illinois, where they live, is crucial. It's something Vernita held as a dream for a while."

By marrying, the couple will have access to tangible benefits that they have been denied, Taylor said.

"One of Vernita's concerns was her ability to take care of Pat when she goes. Once they are married, that will make a difference to Pat's situation financially," Taylor said.

Gray was unavailable for comment Monday night. Ewert was traveling Monday and said she learned the news from text messages from the attorneys.

"This all happened so quickly," Ewert said. "Vernita and I haven't had a chance to even talk."

Gray is a graduate of Columbia College and spent 20 years working as a victims advocate in the Cook County court system. Ewert has lived in Cook County since 1980 and works as the community coordinator for state Rep. Kelly Cassidy.

According to their lawsuit, the two women met at an event hosted by the Cook County state's attorney's office and became friends. They began dating shortly after, fell in love and got engaged in 2009. The two also have participated in several commitment ceremonies.

In June 2013, Gray learned that the cancer had spread to her brain, the couple said in their lawsuit. She has had brain surgery since then but was recently told she may have only days or weeks to live. In court Monday, the couple's attorneys argued that they deserved the license they were lobbying for because of Gray's grim prognosis. Orr's office, which was represented by the state's attorney's office, chose not to defend itself against the lawsuit.

Durkin essentially ruled that because of the special circumstance, the women should get a marriage license. The ruling affects only them but could serve as an inspiration for other couples facing similar situations, their attorneys said.

"This case illustrates the cruelty of being made to wait seven months to be able to marry," Taylor said. "There is no sense to that, and there are many Illinois families that are suffering significant harm because they are not married. While this family's situation is particularly dire, there are others, too, who need to be able to marry."

• Tribune reporter Monique Garcia contributed.

(c)2013 the Chicago Tribune Distributed by MCT Information Services

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