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Wisconsin's clerks warned against issuing same-sex marriage licenses

By Brendan O'Brien

MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Wisconsin county clerks who issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples over the past week could face charges for breaking the state's marriage laws, the state's attorney general said on Thursday.

The warning from Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, a Republican, comes six days after U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb declared Wisconsin's ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. The ruling was followed by hundreds of same-sex couples rushing to county offices throughout the state to wed.

County Clerks who issue the licenses are doing so without proper authority, said attorney general spokeswoman Dana Brueck in an email.

"It is, and has been, the attorney general's position that Wisconsin's marriage law is still in full force and effect," Brueck wrote.

Milwaukee County Deputy Clerk George Christenson said his office was told by its lawyers it had legal authority to issue the licenses based on Crabb's ruling.

"The court has ruled. He should call off his dogs and turn off his fire hoses," said Scott McDonell, the clerk in Dane County, the second largest county in the state.

In her ruling striking down Wisconsin's 2006 ban on gay marriage, Crabb did not say whether county clerks were allowed to issue marriage licenses or prohibited until further rulings, leaving it up to county clerks throughout the state to decide whether to issue licenses or not.

Van Hollen had sought the stay from Crabb on Friday and on Monday asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit to halt gay marriages in Wisconsin until appeals are concluded.

According to Fair Wisconsin, an LGBT advocacy organization, 51 of the state's 72 county clerks have issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples since the ruling. A tally by Reuters found that more than 500 gay couples have applied for or have been granted a marriage license.

"The validity of these marriages is uncertain," Brueck said.

Challenges to state bans gathered momentum last June when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that same-sex couples married in states where gay marriage is legal were eligible for federal benefits.

Not including Wisconsin, same-sex marriage is now legal in 19 states plus the District of Columbia. That number would jump sharply if federal court rulings striking down bans in several states are upheld on appeal.

(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Edith Honan)

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