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Judge allows challenges to Illinois gay marriage ban to proceed

By Brendan O'Brien

(Reuters) - An Illinois judge on Friday allowed two lawsuits challenging the state's ban on gay marriage to proceed, possibly setting the stage for state courts rather than the legislature to decide whether same-sex couples will be allowed to marry in Illinois.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Sophia Hall ruled that lawsuits brought by same-sex couples have a chance of succeeding with the argument that the state's ban on gay marriage discriminates against them.

The ruling is a boost for Illinois supporters of gay marriage trying to legalize gay nuptials through the courts because efforts through the state legislature fell short.

Thirteen U.S. states have legalized gay marriage. Several states including Iowa and some in New England, have done so through court rulings. Others such as Minnesota approved it through the legislature and last year Maine voted for same sex marriage in a referendum.

Supporters in other states have pursued a course similar to Illinois. On Friday, a New Jersey judge issued an order allowing same-sex marriage statewide in defiance of the state's governor, Chris Christie, who had vetoed a bill to legalize gay nuptials passed by the legislature.

The Illinois state Senate voted on Valentine's Day in February this year to legalize gay marriage but the state House of Representatives never scheduled a vote.

Civil unions for gay and lesbian couples are legal in Illinois but gay activists said this does not go far enough.

Gay marriage supporters plan to hold a rally and concert at the State Capitol on October 22 to pressure the state lawmakers to approve gay nuptials.

The judge was responding to lawsuits filed by The American Civil Liberties Union, and pro-gay rights group Lambda Legal on behalf of 25 same-sex couples in May 2012 after the clerk of Cook County, which includes Chicago, refused to marry same-sex couples or recognize nuptials performed in other states.

"Loving same-sex couples in Illinois can't wait any longer for the freedom to marry. We're excited to get to the next step and make the case for equality," said Camilla Taylor, the marriage project director for Lambda Legal, in a statement.

Opponents said they would continue efforts to block legalization of gay marriage in Illinois.

"Marriage between one man and one woman is constitutional, and we are confident that Illinois' marriage laws will ultimately be upheld," said Paul Linton, a lawyer for the Thomas More Society, which is opposed to same sex marriage.

The action in Illinois came three months after U.S. Supreme Court threw out a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred same-sex couples from federal marriage benefits. The Supreme Court left it up to the states to decide on the legality of same-sex marriage.

(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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