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STL Same-Sex Couples Consider Legal Implications As They Prepare To Marry

Provided by the couple

While same-sex couples in Missouri ponder the uncertain impact of marrying in Illinois, one St. Louis pair plans to say "I do" across the river as another heads in the opposite direction.

As 29-year-old Kelsi Davis of south St. Louis plans to wed her partner Saturday in Illinois, her favorite romantic movie since the age of 4 is etched in her mind — and on her body: she has a “Princess Bride” tattoo on her hip which includes the film's signature line, "As You Wish."

“I’ve been planning my wedding since I knew what weddings were,” Davis said.

Davis found her partner Melodie Heberer, 28, with the help of Cupid — or rather, OKCupid.com. When they met in person at three years ago, they bonded over coffee and their love of film. The always-a-bridesmaid-never-a-bride flick “27 Dresses” was the first movie they watched together. Heberer proposed on Christmas Eve 2012.

Nine bridesmaids and one groomsman will stand up for Davis and Heberer when they marry in Heberer’s home town of Okawville, Ill. Heberer checked beforehand with the Washington County clerk, who assured her they'd have no trouble getting a marriage license. He had only one question: “How’s your dad doing?

But as the couple prepares to walk down the aisle, tougher questions loom large. What will their marriage mean, legally? And could an Illinois marriage license eventually be problematic for a Missouri couple? 

Legal Limbo

Last week, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan gave counties the green light to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples instead of waiting until the new law allowing such unions takes effect June 1. Cook and Champagne counties said they would immediately start accepting applications. St. Clair County is on board too but with a caveat: The state’s attorney will review those applications before deciding whether to grant licenses. No couples have applied in St. Clair County so far.

Missouri couples should have no more problems than in-state pairs when they apply. But issues may emerge later on. Illinois prohibits any marriage that would be void in a couple’s home state, a law whose original intent was to address underage marriage. Missouri‘s constitutional amendment states that marriage must be between a man and a woman, although it does not include the word "void."

It's a situation that could eventuallylead to legal challenges for Missouri couples, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri Jeffrey Mittman told St. Louis Public Radio. Problems could arise if they adopt children, buy a home or enter into any other legal agreement. The ACLU cautioned same-sex couples to seek legal advice before marrying in Illinois.

PROMO, the Missouri-based organization that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality,also advises couples in Missouri to check with an attorney before applying for an Illinois marriage license.

Davis, who works with people with developmental disabilities, and Heberer, a mortgage loan officer, said they're not too worried about the collision of Illinois and Missouri laws. Heberer is more concerned about the nearly complete lack of recognition of their marriage in Missouri, no matter where they wed. Would she be able to be with Davis in a medical emergency?

“It terrifies me to think about if something were to happen to her,” Heberer said. “Even though she’ll be my wife — in Missouri, she’s not.” 

Davis and Heberer are planning to complete the patchwork of papers that cobble together certain rights such as power of attorney. They’ll need to carry these documents with them to prove they’re more than legal strangers even though their wedding rings and marriage license will say otherwise.

Cold Feet, Warm Destination

Bonnie Rauls of west St. Louis County and her partner each realized at young ages that they would live their lives under the radar. That they would keep their college and young-adult crushes a secret from much of the world, and relegate their biggest relationships to vague stories.

In the Midwest in the 1980s, openly dating someone of the same sex was dangerous. Making a public commitment was unthinkable.

“As girls growing up, both of us said marriage is for someone else,” Rauls said.

But after 16 years together, during which LGBT visibility moved ahead at lightning speed, the couple decided to tie the knot. When Illinois approved same-sex marriage last year, they were overjoyed.

“Illinois would have been close enough to have a true ceremony surrounded by family and friends,” Rauls said in an interview.

But when they read in the St. Louis Beacon last November about the problems that might arise for Missouri couples getting married in Illinois, they began to get cold feet going across the Mississippi River to do so.

“Somewhere down the road, it could be, ‘Sorry, you live in Missouri and that marriage certificate from Illinois doesn’t apply,’” Rauls said.

But as activists and elected officials scrutinized the ins and out of same-sex marriage, 51-year-old Rauls, an athletic trainer and fitness specialist, and her partner couldn’t just stand by. They were facing a deadline. Rauls’ partner, 52, who’s leaving the education field after this school year, was advised to get as legally married as she could before filling out her retirement papers. (She declined to be interviewed, citing professional concerns.)

The best time to get away was during her spring break — the last week in March. So over many weeks and countless hours, the couple scoured the internet, examining the marriage laws of all 17 states plus Washington, D.C., that allow same-sex marriage.

“We were obsessed with trying to find the details,” Rauls said.

They discovered several other states also have prohibitive laws similar to the one in Illinois. Eventually, New Mexico emerged as the best choice for their March 25 ceremony. It has no law forbidding their union and no waiting period after applying. Plus, Raul’s sister is there and they can be reasonably sure of good weather.

What they don’t know is how long before their marriage will mean anything in Missouri.

“We’re just going to cross our fingers that Missouri will flip soon,” Rauls said.

Still, Rauls and her partner are grateful for the opportunity to be married at all. So are Heberer and Davis. Davis will wear a cream-colored gown as she becomes a real-life "Princess Bride," something she once thought might never happen.

“When I realized I was gay, it was kind of heartbreaking to think I wouldn’t get married in front of my friends,” Davis said. “Now, it might not be legally recognized but I can still have that day when everyone will be there to celebrate my love and my relationship.”

Heberer, a self-described “hopeless romantic," is also excited about their wedding. But the murkiness of the law will remain a worry until the day when all marriages are equal.

“Until we don’t have to say the term ‘gay marriage,’” Heberer said. “Until it’s just ‘marriage.’”

What’s the latest on same-sex marriage?

Which states allow same-sex marriage?

The 1,138 federal rights of legally married couples

Washington Post: “Why the Political Fight Over Same-Sex Marriage Is Over”

Illinois Family Institute’s opposition to same-sex marriage

Eight same-sex couples at the heart of Missouri ACLU lawsuit against marriage amendment

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.