After nearly two decades of debate, Nebraska’s same-sex marriage ban fell quickly Friday after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a landmark civil rights case that states cannot deny a gay couple the dignity of marriage.
Within an hour, Nebraska. Gov. Pete Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson gave the green light for county clerks to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses.
Ricketts and Peterson both made it clear they disagreed with the opinion, but both said Nebraska would “follow the law.”
“While 70 percent of Nebraskans approved our amendment to our state constitution that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman, the highest court in the land has ruled states cannot place limits on marriage between same-sex couples,” Ricketts said in a press release.
“We will follow the law and respect the ruling outlined by the court,” Ricketts added.
Shortly afterward, county clerks in Douglas and Lancaster Counties began to issue same-sex marriage licenses. There was not a huge demand, but several couples had waited for years for the right to exchange their “I dos,” and they did not want to wait a minute longer.
The first couple in line in Lancaster County was Judith Gibson, 74, and Barbara DiBernard, 66, of Lincoln. It is believed they received the state’s first same-sex marriage license at 10:17 a.m., beating a couple in Douglas County.
Gibson and DiBernard, who have been together nearly 27 years, embraced and cheered when they got the paperwork. They said they planned to exchange vows later in a ceremony at home.
In Douglas County, Kathy Pettersen, 61, and Beverly Reicks, 52, were the first in line, saying they made a dash for the courthouse after the Supreme Court’s opinion was released. “We have never run so fast,” said Reicks, to a round of cheers and laughter.
As they filled out the license, Pettersen began reading excerpts from the Supreme Court ruling about equality and love.
“It is a historic day for civil rights in America,” she said.
Unlike the Lincoln couple, Pettersen and Reicks were married at the clerk's office. Chief Deputy Clerk Kathleen Hall officiated at the wedding.
Douglas County Clerk Tom Cavanaugh couldn’t have been happier. He said he’d long wanted to issue a same-sex marriage license.
“There’s equality in the state of Nebraska, and it is about time,” Cavanaugh said. “We don’t have to deny licenses anymore, and it’s a good feeling.”
After the reality of the Supreme Court decision set in, Christopher Brown, 40, and Tom Fennell, 51, jumped on their bikes and headed to the clerk's office to get a marriage license. Sweat rolled off their foreheads as they proudly waltzed into the clerk's office. They were met with a jolly greeting and hug from Cavanaugh.
"I was wondering when you guys were going to show up," Cavanaugh said and laughed.
Susan and Sally Waters, the lead plaintiffs in the marriage equality lawsuit against the state of Nebraska, arrived next and handed the gentlemen roses to congratulate them on marriage equality.
Leslie Cavanaugh, a public defender, hugged the men and cried as she said, "I am so happy for you guys."
Brown and Fennell had already filled out their application for a marriage license before Friday. The couple plans to have a wedding ceremony at Heartland of America Park in late August. After obtaining their license, the couple went to the park's department to get approval for the ceremony.
"We've been waiting for this day," Fennell said. "It feels so great."
In Sarpy County, officials were prepared to issue licenses. No same-sex couples had applied by midday.
The Supreme Court ruling had been anticipated for weeks. When it came, there was a flood of emotion on both sides of the controversial topic.
For the gay community, the cheers and tears flowed quickly.
“I can’t believe it. We got a house full of kids and everybody’s screaming and crying,” said Jess Meadows-Anderson, a gay-rights activist in Omaha who read the opinion shortly after it was issued.
“This is everything we ever hoped for and waited for and prayed for. It all culminated in one ruling, and it changes everything,” she said.
For M.J. McBride, another gay-rights activist who owns a business in Omaha, the ruling means that her Iowa marriage will now be legally recognized every day of the week, including when she goes to work in Nebraska.
“Awesome. Just awesome. I’m very grateful to be an American today,” McBride said.
Others voiced disappointment.
Those who have long fought against gay marriage said today’s ruling does not change how they will view that institution. They also said it doesn’t end the debate.
“Despite the ruling from the Supreme Court, marriage has always been and will always be between a man and a woman. No court can change that,” said Al Riskowski, executive director of the Nebraska Family Alliance.
“We believe that the Supreme Court just undermined a state’s right to define marriage by imposing a 50-state homosexual mandate,” Riskowski added.
Catholic Church leaders in Nebraska also said a federal court would not have the final word on how marriage is defined by church leaders.
“The church believes that marriage is a reality that is written in our hearts as part of natural law,’’ said JD Flynn, spokesman for the Lincoln Diocese. “(It) is the union of man and woman in a lifelong partnership for the procreation of children. The Supreme Court decision doesn’t change that.”
The ruling effectively means that gay couples will now enjoy all the rights, privileges and responsibilities of married couples, said Donna Red Wing, executive director of One Iowa, a gay-rights organization.
It means that they will not only be able to file a joint tax return, but they’ll also have all the protections that federal and state laws apply to married couples.
“For thousands of gay and lesbian couples, this means that they can better protect one another and their children because they will finally be included in the federal and state safety nets of marriage, with more than 1,100 federal benefits from which they were previously excluded,” said Red Wing.
Gay rights groups in both Iowa and Nebraska were planning to hold parties and rallies later this evening.
In Iowa, a rally will be held tonight on the State Capitol grounds. In Nebraska, a party was set at House of Loom, a bar/club in downtown Omaha.
Omaha Police Detective Beth Abramson said she welled up with tears when she heard about the Supreme Court ruling. For her and her partner, Cindy Wiles, also a police officer, it means their union will be recognized in their home state.
Abramson said it didn't seem right to get married in neighboring Iowa. She preferred to marry where she lives.
"We should be equal right here at home," she said. "I'm happy to be considered equal to my peers."
The couple used their lunch break on Friday to finalize their marriage license at the clerk's office. Abramson said they applied for a marriage license soon after federal Judge Joseph Bataillon struck down Nebraska's ban on gay marriage on March 2. Bataillon's ruling was put on hold after the state appealed it. Abramson and Wiles' marriage application has remained on file at the clerk's office since then. They plan to have a wedding ceremony with all of their family and friends in the future.
"It has been a long hard fight to equality," Wiles said. "The emotions are so overwhelming you can't help but cry."
World-Herald staff writers Martha Stoddard, Alissa Skelton, Emily Nohr and Michael O’Connor contributed to this report.
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