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Gays tie the knot in Wisconsin

Wanda Brown, left, and Phyllis Goldin got married 10 years ago in Canada. Now, thanks to a federal judge’s ruling, the couple is considered legally married in Wisconsin. (Submitted photo)

Wedding bells are in the air for Wisconsin same-sex couples.

Media reports say many couples have already been married in Madison and Milwaukee, following the decision by federal judge Barbara Crabb who ruled Wisconsin’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional last Friday.

There was a time Wanda Brown and Phyllis Goldin of River Falls thought they would never see this day.

“We could never have imagined that this would happen in our lifetimes,” Brown said. “It’s very exciting. We kind of expected Wisconsin would be the last to achieve this kind of justice.”

In fact, Brown said she and Goldin, who have been together 40 years and were married 10 years ago in Canada, have been looking at real estate in the Twin Cities since gay marriage became legal in Minnesota.

“We’ve just been waiting, biding our time and hoping that we would have a choice about whether we could remain in River Falls, which we consider to be home,” Goldin said.

Said Brown: “We can't stay in a place that doesn't recognize us as next of kin. It's absurd to think that we would be next of kin if we lived 15 minutes to the west and that where we live, in River Falls, we're strangers in the eyes of the law."

They are “strangers-in-law,” as Goldin calls it no more.

“We are considered married now, in Wisconsin, with full rights, and we are next of kin,” Goldin said. “It’s wonderfully exciting. It’s great.”

Now, Goldin and Brown said, they have the option to stay in River Falls.

Brown and Goldin said it’s important to them that their marriage be recognized, especially for reasons like taxes and Social Security.

"Unless our marriage is recognized where we live, the Social Security organization does not recognize us as a couple, which has huge financial implications for us over the long term,” Brown said.

She said she knows many other couples -- especially aging couples -- that would benefit from being allowed to marry.

“There is a terrible urgency for people to marry,” she said. “The older we get, the more important it becomes for the marriage situation to get resolved.”

For tax and financial purposes, and for other reasons. For example, medical emergencies.

"If you're in an emergency medical situation, and everyone in that environment honors and respects you as a married couple, you can appreciate, I'm sure, that that has a big impact on the kind of care one receives,” Brown said.

In Pierce County, County Clerk Jamie Feuerhelm said he’d only had two inquiries about same-sex marriage by Monday afternoon. He didn’t expect too many based on a low number of couples in domestic partnerships in Pierce County -- less than 20.

Pierce County is not restricting same-sex couples from applying for marriage licenses.

“We are not advertising it either, because in my opinion, this is all going to change at some point,” Feuerhelm said.

He said he is worried that Crabb’s ruling against the gay marriage ban will go the way of Michigan and Utah, where stays against enforcing the decision were passed, leaving hundreds of marriages “in limbo.”

“Our hands are kind of tied as county clerks. We can’t deny it because the judge ruled that it’s unconstitutional to do so,” Feuerhelm said. “But I’m just concerned this creates absolute chaos for everyone.”

Right now Feuerhelm said he has more questions than answers, and it may take some time for everything to become clear. It will be a busy week, he said.

As of early this week, the St. Croix County Clerk’s office had received between 15 and 20 inquiries about obtaining same-sex marriage licenses. The Wisconsin decision brings to 20 the number of states that have had their gay marriage bans ruled unconstitutional by the courts. Many of those decisions are being appealed.

On Monday Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen asked Crabb to halt, at least temporarily, the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Crabb refused.

However, media reports Tuesday widely indicated it was likely Crabb’s decision will be appealed.

But as of Tuesday no stay had been placed on the decision, so Feuerhelm said to Pierce County that means the clerk’s office is required to allow same-sex couples to apply for marriage licenses the same way that heterosexual couples do.

That means a five-day waiting period, and providing a birth certificate and proof of residency.

Following Crabb’s initial decision, openly gay U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) released this statement:

“Love is love, family is family, and discriminating against anyone’s love, against anyone’s family, is just plain wrong,” Baldwin said. “ Wisconsin can proudly say that discrimination doesn’t just violate our values -- it violates our Constitution.

“And now we can proudly say that marriage equality will be the law of the land in Wisconsin.

“This federal court decision reaffirms our founding belief that all Americans are created equal under the law. It’s about fairness -- about whether gay and lesbian Americans deserve to be treated just like their family members, their friends, and their neighbors.

“It’s about opportunity -- about whether every American gets to dream the same dreams, chase the same ambitions, and have the same shot at success. “And it’s about freedom -- the freedom to love, the freedom to commit, the freedom to build a family...

“We believe that history only moves in one direction: Forward. It’s our state motto and this is a huge step forward for Wisconsin being a place where every family’s love and commitment can be recognized and respected under the law.”

While this is a big step for Wisconsin, Brown said she thinks it’s only a matter of time before the federal government will have to make a decision on gay marriage.

“We can't have a patchwork country where we're married if we go to dinner with my dad in Minnesota, and we're unmarried again the minute we come back to Wisconsin,” Brown said. “This is just insane."

While it isn’t clear yet if marriages like Brown and Goldin’s will be recognized in Wisconsin, Brown said the couple will likely be attending some weddings soon.

Said Brown, “We'll probably be standing up for lots of our friends who are going to get married right away.”

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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