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Midnight marriages mark historic moment in Clay County, Minnesota

By Cali Owings / The Forum

MOORHEAD – A joyous processional passed through security at the Clay County Courthouse late Wednesday night, celebrating as 18 couples would make history by marrying minutes after same-sex marriage became legal in Minnesota.

It was the first formal wedding for some and a second for couples who were already wed in more intimate settings with their family and friends.

All 18 couples were pronounced legally married by Judges Lisa Benson and Michelle Lawson before 12:15 a.m. today.

Three rows of couples stood before the judges in the packed courtroom to exchange marriage vows. The short ceremony incorporated musings on love, marriage and the law from the judges and several traditional wedding ceremony elements such as the exchanging of rings and saying “I do.”

For all the couples and their witnesses, and spectators outside the courtroom, it was a celebration of marriage equality as their relationships – some new, some decades-long – were legitimized in Minnesota for the first time.

It’s a far cry from last summer when many same-sex couples were gearing up to fight a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage in the state.

Justin Metz said the realization that he’ll be able to legally marry his partner, Richie DePaolis, finally hit him Tuesday night.

“I was all of a sudden like, it’s really happening now,” said Metz, a teacher with Fargo Public Schools.

It’s been a whirlwind year for many of the 18 couples who were set to wed just after midnight today in the Clay County Courthouse.

“It’s just crazy the way things went incredibly fast,” Metz said.

The midnight civil marriage ceremony was just 11 weeks after Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill making Minnesota’s marriage laws gender-neutral, and less than nine months since voters defeated a constitutional amendment that would only allow marriages between one man and one woman.

Clay County announced in June it would provide space to couples that wanted to marry as soon as the new law allows.

It was an even wilder ride for Metz and DePaolis, who will close on a home in Moorhead later this month.

Metz said they want to move from West Fargo to Minnesota, where their new marriage will be recognized in addition to other protections the state now affords same-sex couples.

“If North Dakota has spent its legislative session working to restrict our rights, and Minnesota spent its legislative session working to expand them, our taxes would be better spent in the state of Minnesota,” Metz said.

Marriage has been in the cards for the new couple for a while, Metz said. The pair hit it off after striking up a conversation over a picture of DePaolis’ Maltese dog on his profile. They met in January 2012 and knew “pretty early on” it was a good fit, Metz said.

The couple initially planned to get married in another state, return to North Dakota and have a ceremony with family and friends. But marriage became a reality in Minnesota quicker than they thought.

“It was kind of a really neat way of the world putting us where we needed to be,” Metz said.

They planned to celebrate Wednesday night at home by cooking dinner for each other, going on a long walk and dropping by Metz’s former apartment – the spot where they shared their first kiss – before heading to the Clay County Courthouse.

Their day was unusual, too, because a photographer for Minnesota Public Radio documented it all the way to their courthouse nuptials.

Though they did not plan to have any family members or friends in attendance for the late-night wedding, their loved ones will be able to follow their trail of publicity, Metz said.

After the courthouse wedding, the couple will have a ceremony and reception for family and friends in May 2014.

The midnight civil marriage ceremony is the third wedding for both Bob Stone and Jan Titus. Both men were previously married to women before having a wedding ceremony at their church last summer.

Stone, 66, said it’s his “second life.”

When he met Titus for coffee the first time after meeting on a dating website, he said “it was like we knew each other forever.”

“I just knew then that he’s the one,” Stone said.

He and Titus were celebrating earlier in the evening at a reception sponsored by F-M Pride for couples set to be married at midnight. Stone and Titus were excited to be among the first to get married in Clay County – something Stone said he never saw coming.

Stone said his family, friends and church have all been accepting since he came out three years ago. He’s hopes North Dakota will come around, too.

Though the couple will be legally wed in Minnesota and 12 other states, they’ll remain in North Dakota where same-sex marriage is banned by a constitutional amendment.

Still, being able to marry in Minnesota is a “big step,” Stone said.

“I hope we can spend a lot of years together. I hope North Dakota comes along and recognizes it. We will be ready when they do.”

The newlyweds were greeted by a crowd of excited supporters as they exited the courthouse. Many, like Kari Werlinger of Fargo, took the opportunity to be a part of Minnesota’s historic day.

Werlinger greeted the newly married couples with a sign that read “You’ve just made history. May your love be one for the ages. Congratulations.”

Though she didn’t know anyone getting married or participating in the ceremony, Werlinger said she wanted to show her support.

“This is a big moment that some of these couples have been waiting for for years,” she said, adding that she looks forward to telling her children that she was at the courthouse today.

Though Celeste Carlson and Michelle Achenbach have been married since a commitment ceremony at their church in 2007, Carlson said the midnight ceremony was “just like the first time” and that Allebach still had the same sparkle in her eyes.

Getting married in the group ceremony was important for Carlson and Allebach because they wanted to share the historic moment with their community and the 17 other couples who also tied the knot at the same time today..

“There was a joke that we need to have a reunion now,” Allebach said.

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