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Tuesday, March 3, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  Overcast
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Just married! Same-sex couples in Wisconsin make it legal -- while they can

Credit:Lindsay Douglas

Love was in the air Monday night when members of the Cocoa Puffs and Green Queens were warming up for their softball game at Bowman Field.

"Before we get started, congratulations to all those who got married this weekend," umpire Luke Nelson shouted to players in the Badgerland Softball League, which is an LGBT club.

In fact, same-sex weddings continued throughout the week. And it wasn't just in Dane and Milwaukee counties, where the clerks stayed open late Friday and through Saturday to process marriage licenses following a federal court ruling striking down the state's ban on same-sex marriage.

As of Tuesday, 50 of the state's 72 counties were granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, reports Craig Gilbert, who follows voting trends for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Those 50 counties are home to three out of four Wisconsin voters," he wrote. And they are diverse counties, politically and otherwise, "ranging from big to small, urban to rural and very blue to very red."

Together, he added, "they can be read as a sign of the shifting politics of gay marriage."

U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb issued her highly anticipated ruling on the federal challenge to Wisconsin's ban on same-sex marriage last Friday afternoon. In an 88-page decision, Crabb declared that the state's constitutional amendment violates same-sex couples' "fundamental right to marry and their right to equal protection of laws under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution." The judge also stuck down any Wisconsin laws that limit marriages to a "husband" and a "wife."

Karma Chavez, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies the LGBT movement, says Crabb's decision was not surprising, given the national trend toward legalizing same-sex marriage.

"We're on that train now," she says.

Chavez says the tide really started to turn in 2012, when Minnesota rejected a ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage and the next year approved a law legalizing it.

Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell and Milwaukee County Clerk Joe Czarnezki had prepared for Crabb's ruling, lining up additional staff to process marriage licenses and officiants who would be on hand to immediately marry the couples. They thought the window might be narrow. Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen had filed a motion for an emergency stay even before Crabb issued her ruling. And he filed another one a few hours after the release of her decision.

Despite the uncertainty, the mood at the City-County Building Friday night was jubilant. With license in hand, couples picked an officiant and, often in the company of family and media jostling for a good camera angle, exchanged vows. Though rushed and communal by circumstance, the moment was emotional for many couples, who cried throughout their short ceremonies, as did their friends and family members.

With no word from Crabb on a stay, the county clerks in Dane and Milwaukee opened their offices on Saturday to continue processing marriage licenses for same-sex couples. By the end of weekend, 138 licenses were issued in Dane County and 146 in Milwaukee County.

The legal wrangling began anew Monday morning. Van Hollen decided to try his luck in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, where he also filed for an emergency stay of Crabb's ruling. Meanwhile, Crabb scheduled a hearing on the emergency request before her.

Crabb declined to issue a stay but noted she would likely go that route eventually, as has nearly every federal judge who has struck down same-sex marriage bans in other states. The judge said she would rule on the stay once she issued an order on the terms of the injunction requested by the ACLU-Wisconsin, which represents the eight same-sex couples who sued the state for the right to marry. A hearing on the injunction is set for June 13.

Meanwhile the Court of Appeals has asked the parties in the lawsuit to submit briefs on whether it has jurisdiction to decide on an emergency stay, given that a similar request is pending in Crabb's court.

All the legal back-and-forth has created uncertainty both in terms of how long county clerks will be able to issue marriages licenses to same-sex couples and what the legal status of those marriages are.

Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the ACLU-Wisconsin, says the unions are legal. Dana Brueck, spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, however, says "the validity is uncertain."

What is near certain, however, is that one of the pending cases in federal circuit court will end up soon before the U.S. Supreme Court.

It could happen, says Ahmuty, "as early as next year."

Read the complete cover story.

More coverage on the issue of same-sex marriage in Wisconsin can be found here.

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