Same-sex couples receive marriage licenses in Walworth County

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Andrea Anderson
Thursday, June 12, 2014

ELKHORN—Two town of East Troy women were the first same-sex couple given marriage licenses Thursday morning in Walworth County.

Dea Fowler and Jan Barnard received their license three days after two Janesville women were the first same-sex couple married in Rock County on Monday morning.

At 7:57 a.m., the couple walked into the Walworth County Clerk’s Office with smiles on their faces.

About 20 minutes later, the two stood up, took an oath and received the license.

“It’s great to actually feel our relationship is validated,” Barnard, 63, said. “In our hearts, we were already married.”

Walworth County Clerk Kim Bushey decided Wednesday to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples starting at 8 a.m. Thursday. She said it was becoming unfair to make Walworth County residents wait while other county clerks were issuing licenses.

“When you can go 15 miles away from here and get a marriage license, it starts to be punitive to your people. It really does,” Bushey said.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb overturned the state’s same-sex marriage ban June 6. As of midday Wednesday, 483 marriage licenses had been issued to same-sex couples statewide, according to an Associated Press survey of the 72 county clerks.

On Monday afternoon, Crabb rejected a request from Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to block the decision for the time being.

Fowler and Barnard knew the county clerk’s office would be closed when they heard the news late afternoon Friday.

“We know being in a smaller county it’s like, ‘Oh, gone fishin,’” Fowler said.

The two left voicemails and an email Friday for Bushey and remained in touch during the week.

Over the weekend, the two had friends get married in Milwaukee County. They were hopeful they would get married Monday.

Before Bushey’s decision Wednesday, she was holding off on issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples waiting for additional information from the state, legal guidance from the county’s legal counsel and Crabb’s decision on Van Hollen’s request for a stay.

Since Crabb’s ruling, Bushey has been asking for legal guidance from the Wisconsin Vital Records Office and the state Attorney General’s Office.

The state Vital Records Office manages marriage records. The office began processing marriage licenses Wednesday. Bushey said “that was a sign” for her to start issuing licenses.

On Wednesday, Bushey received a four-page opinion on the issue from the Walworth County Corporation Counsel’s Office advising her it would be OK to issue licenses to same-sex couples.

The counsel’s office includes County Administrator David Bretl and lawyer Michael Cotter.

When deciding the issue, it’s important to consider that a large percentage of the state’s population lives in counties issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples and that a state agency is accepting the licenses, Bretl said.

Taking the extra days to decide was important because it is an important and complicated issue, Bretl said.

“The idea that you’re going to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after an overwhelming majority of state residents passed a constitutional amendment to (not) do it, I think, merits a little bit of thought,” Bretl said.

On Wednesday, Bushey told four same-sex couples who had inquired about marriage licenses, including Fowler and Barnard, that the office would issue licenses starting Thursday.

Barnard received an email from Bushey while she was driving home from work.

“We were delighted,” Barnard said with a smile. “We came home and started making calls and double-checking our paperwork and everything.”

The two said they were frustrated they couldn’t get married Monday even though they live within 13 miles of counties issuing licenses to same-sex couples.

“It was a matter of not giving up and keep asking,” Barnard said.

She said the county clerk’s office was communicative, polite and responsive.

The two met 15 years ago through an online dating site and exchanged vows at a Unitarian Universalist church later Thursday morning.

Van Hollen filed a petition with the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday seeking a stay.

The couple is not concerned about the petition and equated the issue to the civil rights movement and to the one-time prohibition against African-Americans and whites marrying.

“It’s pretty clear when something is unconstitutional,” Fowler said. “I mean, be on the right side of history, really.”

Bushey’s office issued two marriage licenses to same-sex couples by 8:30 a.m.

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