MILWAUKEE — Dozens of gay couples married Saturday at courthouses in Milwaukee and Madison, taking advantage of what most believed would be a small window in which to get hitched before a judge's decision overturning the state's same-sex marriage ban was put on hold.
The decision was announced Friday afternoon just as the party was getting started at PrideFest, an annual gay celebration that draws thousands of people to Milwaukee's festival grounds on Lake Michigan.
Many couples who married Saturday said the judge's decision had caught them by surprise, and they hadn't wanted to break Friday night plans. Others needed time to assemble the documents required for a marriage license. Couples began lining up outside the Milwaukee County courthouse at 6 a.m., three hours before it opened.
Craig Cook and Marshall Draper arrived about 8:30 a.m. and found nearly two dozen couples in line ahead of them. Cook, 43, said he and others had hoped U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb would make a decision in time for PrideFest. He and Draper attended the festival Friday night and planned to return Saturday after being married by a Unitarian minister outside the courthouse.
"Had this been legal, we probably would have done this 20 years ago," Cook said. He said he and Draper likely will have a reception in a few weeks, but "this was as formal a wedding as I've ever wanted."
Gay rights activists have won 15 consecutive lower court cases since a landmark Supreme Court ruling last summer, but in states such as Arkansas, couples had only a few days in which to marry before judges' decisions were appealed.
Abby Collier said she planned to marry her partner, Beth Collier, several years ago in her native California, but ceremonies were halted the day before. She was surprised Friday by the sense of urgency that experience gave her.
"My initial reaction was, 'We have to get down there. We have to do this right away,'" Abby Collier said while volunteering at PrideFest on Saturday.
The couple, who are in their 30s, already had a domestic partnership, wills and medical powers of attorney to care for themselves and their children, but Collier said marriage gave her greater peace of mind.
"I told myself it didn't matter, and I really believed it didn't matter. I wear a ring, everyone knows we're a couple," she said. "But it does matter."
Voters amended the Wisconsin Constitution in 2006 to outlaw gay marriage or anything substantially similar. Crabb, the federal judge, declared the ban unconstitutional in a lawsuit the ACLU had filed on behalf of eight gay couples.
Her decision, however, did not order counties to start issuing licenses. Instead, Crabb asked the couples who sued to describe exactly what they wanted her to block in the gay marriage law. That created a situation in which county clerks in the state's two largest cities began issuing licenses while others did not.
Jen Wold, 29, and Jodi Bova, 37, heard about Crabb's decision when they arrived at PrideFest on Friday afternoon. Wold immediately called the clerk in Racine County, where they live, to see if they could race back there to get a license. She was told the clerk's office was awaiting an order to arrive from the state capital in Dane County.
"There was a little bit of jealousy" this weekend, Wold said, as the couple watched others marry while they still could not. Wisconsin law requires residents to apply for marriage licenses in the county where they live.
Bova said they planned to be at the Racine County clerk's office early Monday morning to get a license because they expected a court order halting marriages to come later in the day.
Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen asked Crabb on Friday to issue an emergency stay halting the issuing of licenses to same-sex couples. He was expected to petition a federal appeals court for a similar order Monday.
Milwaukee County issued 146 marriage licenses to same-sex couples from Friday afternoon to 1 p.m. Saturday, when the clerk's office closed. In Madison, the Dane County clerk's office issued 129 licenses from the time of the court decision to 3:30 p.m. Saturday. An employee said most of those were for gay couples but a few opposite-sex couples had taken advantage of the extended hours.
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Rachel Arbit , 27, and Ashley Norris, 30, tried to get married Friday evening but arrived at the Milwaukee courthouse to find they needed Arbit's birth certificate and Social Security card, both of which were locked in a safe deposit box at a bank nearly three hours away. They returned to the courthouse Saturday morning and waited for Arbit's mother to bring the documents.
"We don't know how long it's going to last, this ruling," Norris said. "And we don't want to miss out."
The couple already planned an October wedding before a rabbi and more than 100 guests and will still have that ceremony. "This is like a total bonus," Arbit said.