Same-sex couples apply for marriage licenses at Sedgwick County Courthouse

Gay residents pick up applications for marriage licenses at the Sedgwick County Courthouse on Thursday after the Supreme Court lifted the hold on same-sex marriage in Kansas on Wednesday. (Nov. 13, 2014)
Gay residents pick up applications for marriage licenses at the Sedgwick County Courthouse on Thursday after the Supreme Court lifted the hold on same-sex marriage in Kansas on Wednesday. (Nov. 13, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

On a day they doubted would come in their lifetimes, gays and lesbians converged as the Sedgwick County Courthouse opened Thursday to apply for a document heterosexual couples have long taken for granted:

A marriage license.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Lisa, who did not want to give her last name or have her photograph taken for fear she would lose her job because she’s a lesbian. “It’s surreal, almost, that this is actually happening.

“I did not believe this would happen in my lifetime at all – especially in Kansas.”

But the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday denied Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s request to halt a judge’s order instructing counties to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Lisa was among a handful of people waiting to get a marriage license when the courthouse opened in downtown Wichita on Thursday morning.

She said she wanted to get the license for her and her partner of six years “while it’s still legal.”

In Manhattan, one couple married in front of the Riley County Courthouse.

“We got it!” Joleen Hickman said as she held up her marriage license to cheers.

She and Darci Bohnenblust, her partner of 19 years, said their vows before the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood declared that “by the power of your love, and in the presence of all the witnesses gathered here today, and perhaps most importantly for this moment as recognized by the state of Kansas, I now pronounce that you are legally married.”

But the process for couples in other counties Thursday was less smooth.

Reno and McPherson counties were accepting applications from same-sex couples but telling them that the counties would not issue licenses until directed by the Kansas Supreme Court, said Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, the state’s leading LGBT rights organization.

Witt pointed out that in his petition to the Kansas Supreme Court, Schmidt argued that Johnson County could not issue licenses while the rest of the state did not, arguing that the state must have a uniform practice. But now in the wake of the federal ruling, Schmidt is arguing that only Douglas and Sedgwick counties should issue licenses, while the rest of the state holds off.

“It’s ludicrous,” Witt said of Schmidt’s arguments. “He’s talking out both sides of his mouth. He needs to quit playing politics with our lives.”

Jennifer Rapp, a spokeswoman for Schmidt, said in an e-mail that the federal order only applies to the defendants named in the lawsuit: the clerks of the Sedgwick and Douglas county district courts and the secretary of the Department of Health and Environment.

“The attorney general’s office does not have the legal authority to extend the court order beyond its terms,” Rapp said. “Judge Crabtree initially entered his stay to allow the defendants to appeal. … He made no reference to any other non-parties.

“The state judiciary must determine for itself the reach of Judge Crabtree’s ruling, and we expect that will occur as judges throughout the state are presented with applications.”

The Kansas Supreme Court could settle the issue for the entire state Monday when it meets to deliberate on State v. Moriarty, Schmidt’s suit against a Johnson County judge who issued an order to allow same-sex marriage in the state’s most populous county.

The court will review materials submitted from both sides Monday morning but will not hold oral arguments. The court has not set a definite time line but will issue a ruling as soon as possible.

As of late Thursday afternoon, the marriage license office at the Sedgwick County Courthouse had issued three marriage licenses; an additional 14 applications were filled out. Those couples can return to the courthouse Monday with the proper paperwork filled out to receive their marriage license.

‘Very exciting’

Jackie Carter, pastor of First Metropolitan Community Church, was at the Sedgwick County Courthouse to perform wedding ceremonies for any couples who had previously filed the paperwork.

“It’s very exciting … very exciting,” said Carter, who admitted she doubted as recently as last week that this day would ever come.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this could take years to solve,’” she said.

Carter told arriving couples of a wedding ceremony set for 5 p.m. Monday at the Historic County Courthouse. Given the three-day waiting period, Monday is the earliest any couples applying for a license Thursday could tie the knot.

Lisa said she and her partner will be among those getting married at the courthouse on Monday. They will have a church ceremony sometime next year, she said.

Carter said she has been getting three to four death threats a day since late last week from people who don’t want her marrying same-sex couples.

“Part of me says those are crazies, nothing’s actually going to happen,” she said, “and part of me is scared to death. I am a little frightful that something might actually happen.”

But she’s not going to quit.

“It’s scary and it breaks my heart that somebody would have that much hatred for another human being,” Carter said.

The ability to legally marry is important, Carter said, because it signals to society that gays and lesbians are equal to heterosexual couples.

“They are in the sight of God and now they need to be in the sight of authorities,” she said.

When she was married to a man, Lisa said, she viewed a marriage certificate as merely a piece of paper. But now she recognizes it as much more than that.

It means she and her partner can get insurance together and visit each other in the hospital or emergency room. It means if something happens to one of them, the other person won’t be kicked out of the house.

It means her 15-year-old son won’t be placed in foster care if she happens to die.

“It’s just like a business contract at this point,” she said. “It’s our only way for people to recognize what is mine is hers and what is hers is mine.

“We’ll still have people hate us,” she said. “We’ll still have discrimination, but it’s one step at a time and this is that first step.”

Thursday wasn’t the first time Mallory Rine and Shelly Walston had come to the marriage license bureau.

“About a month ago; our license was accepted and summarily denied” as various court rulings were handed down, Walston said.

The couple, who have been together for eight years, considered getting married in Iowa until it looked like same-sex marriage would be allowed in Kansas.

“We decided to wait until it could happen here in our hometown,” Walston said.

They held a church wedding last summer and will now coordinate schedules with their officiant to make it legal.

Same-sex marriage could add more than $26 million a year to the state’s economy, according to a study released this week by NerdWallet.com, a personal finance website. The site reached that figure based on the average cost of weddings in Kansas, assuming that gay and lesbian couples marry at the same rate as the general population.

Contributing: Associated Press

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @StanFinger.

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