By James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Same-sex couples in Illinois' Cook County, which includes the city of Chicago, can wed immediately and do not have to wait to tie the knot until a new state law legalizing gay marriage takes effect in June, a federal judge ruled on Friday.
Illinois lawmakers approved same-sex marriage late in 2013, effective on June 1, and several couples had sued Cook County Clerk David Orr for the right to marry immediately.
"There is no reason to delay further when no opposition has been presented to this court and committed gay and lesbian couples have already suffered from the denial of their fundamental right to marry," said U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman in Chicago.
Coleman had ruled in December that Cook County same-sex couples could obtain an emergency marriage license ahead of June if one partner had a life-threatening illness, and some same-sex couples have been issued a license on that basis.
On Friday, she said the Illinois ban on same-sex marriage until June violated the couples' rights to equal protection under the U.S. Constitution, but her finding only applied to Cook County, based on the case brought to her.
Orr, who supported the couples' request, said the clerk's office in downtown Chicago would issue same-sex marriage licenses on Friday and stay open two hours longer than usual. All offices will issue licenses starting on Monday, he said.
Fewer than a dozen marriage licenses had been issued to same-sex couples by mid-afternoon on Friday, but "the couples keep coming," said Orr's spokeswoman, Courtney Greve.
Orr married one couple on the spot Friday who had obtained a judge's waiver, Greve said. A license, good for 60 days, normally is valid the day after it is issued.
Another couple, Dan Paulos, 54, a dentist, and Stephen Pease, 35, his partner of 14 years, were the sixth to obtain a license. Paulos said they heard about it on the news.
"I didn't think it would happen in my lifetime," Paulos said.
Paulos and Pease had planned to marry in Hawaii next month, but instead will be married Saturday by a judge and honeymoon in Hawaii, they said. They officially became domestic partners and previously entered a civil union.
"In our minds we have been married for years," Pease said. "This is just the last legal step."
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn said same-sex couples in every county of the state should be able to marry before June.
Chicago welcomes all couples, said Mayor Rahm Emanuel. "I look forward to the day where every American enjoys the same freedom to marry, and when our country can provide equal rights to every man or woman - gay or straight," he said.
In all, 17 states, including Illinois, and the District of Columbia recognize gay marriage in a movement that has gained momentum since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that legally married same-sex couples are eligible for federal benefits.
Since mid-December, federal judges have also ruled unconstitutional bans on same-sex marriage in Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia. Those decisions have been stayed pending appeals.
Court challenges of same-sex marriage bans are pending in several other states as well.
(Additional reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis and Karen Pierog in Chicago; editing by Gunna Dickson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Gunna Dickson)