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Same-sex couples are turning to Crookston, Minn.

CROOKSTON, Minn. — Mark Beedy and Mark Pope live in Thief River Falls, but the same-sex couple traveled to the Polk County office building in Crookston for their marriage license and their marriage ceremony.

“Most weddings are held in churches or in courthouses,” Beedy said. “We didn’t know of any church in Thief River Falls offering same-sex marriages, and the Pennington County courthouse wasn’t offering it.

“So, having the wedding in the courthouse in Crookston by someone authorized by a state to conduct marriage made it feel more official for us.”

The availability of a courthouse marriage ceremony is one of several reasons that Polk County has been the place to go in northwestern Minnesota for same-sex couples wanting to marry.

Since gay marriage became legal in Minnesota on Aug. 1, Polk County has issued 19 licenses to same-sex couples. In contrast, the other eight counties in northwestern Minnesota have combined to issue five same-sex licenses.

One reason for Polk County’s license traffic is that Michelle Cote, the county’s director of property records, has cleared one hurdle for couples by becoming licensed to perform marriage ceremonies, as she did for the Beedy-Pope ceremony. Word of her availability spread when media reported about her office being open from midnight to 1 a.m. on the first day allowed for same-sex marriage.

“Am I looking to drum up business? No,” Cote said. “It just comes here, from word of mouth.”

Big population

The wedding option at Polk County’s office building isn’t the only reason that the county has attracted more license-seekers than its neighbors. Another reason is that Polk County, with Crookston and East Grand Forks, is the most populous of the northwestern corner’s counties.

Along those same lines is the proximity to North Dakota, which doesn’t grant same-sex marriages, and specifically Grand Forks, a city that more than doubles Polk County’s population. About one-third of the 19 same-sex licenses in Polk have been issued to North Dakota residents, Cote said.

One such couple is Bev and Sue Quirk, Grand Forks residents who were married Sept. 21 in East Grand Forks. The couple had been together for 20 years, but didn’t seek marriage until Minnesota approved the option.

“We did not consider marriage until it was closer to home for us,” Bev said. “We wanted a celebration with our family and friends attending, to be just like any other couple.

“If Minnesota hadn’t passed it, we wouldn’t be married because it was that important to us to be married close to home.”

Bev said they didn’t want an unofficial wedding in North Dakota, which does not sanction same-sex marriage. Her reasons were both practical and sentimental.

“When we picked up our marriage license, it was really emotional for us because we could finally have what other people have,” Bev said.

So, Polk’s numbers are a result of convenience, population and location.

Not a statement

Minnesota is one of 16 states to have legalized gay marriage, which started with Massachusetts in 2004. Twenty-nine states prohibit it in their constitutions.

Cote said she isn’t trying to make a political statement by offering her marital services. Instead, she said, her availability is because judges in Polk and other northwestern counties are too busy to officiate at weddings. Of the 37 weddings she has presided over since Aug. 1, six of them involved same-sex couples.

“We are just trying to fill a gap in services,” Cote said. “Customer service is very important to me. Our court systems are backlogged and it’s hard for them to squeeze in weddings.”

Licenses secured in Minnesota mean the weddings have to be performed within the state’s borders.

“We’re happy to provide this service,” Cote said. “I wanted to do it because I think sometimes, at every level of government, it seems like we’re always cutting services as cost measures. This has little or no cost involved.”

Cote said the only complaints she has heard have been about performing the marriages on the first eligible day during the early-morning time rather than normal county services hours.

“People thought it was an extra cost to taxpayers,” she said. “But the only extra cost came down to the lights being on.

“We used a kilowatt.”