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Minnesota same-sex marriage: Filling in the gap in marriage services in Polk County

Michelle Cote will conduct a midnight marriage ceremony at the Polk County Government Center in Crookston, Minn. for same-sex couples on Aug. 1. (Will Beaton / Grand Forks Herald)

CROOKSTON -- When same-sex couples decide to marry in Polk County, they may not be able to turn to the churches or the courts but they can count on the county office building.

Michelle Cote and Rob Wagner, who manage the county Taxpayer Service Center there, took it upon themselves to find a way to conduct marriages after the county court administrator decided about two weeks ago to stop providing those services. Administrators at courts in Pennington and Red Lake counties did the same.

"It's incredibly important where we live in northern Minnesota... to offer all the services we can to this area," Cote said. "A lot of times, we're removed from the convenience of service."

"If Polk County doesn't offer marriage services, you'd be hard-pressed to find a place to have civil ceremonies done between Clay County and Roseau, aside from churches," said county commissioner Warren Affeldt of the court administrator's decision.

Administrators have the right to decide whether to provide marriage services, but, after Minnesota's gay-marriage law goes into effect Aug. 1, they'll have to marry same-sex couples as well as heterosexual couples.

After conferring with the county attorney, Cote and Wagner became ordained through the Universal Life Church, an online group that's legally recognized as a church but does not require special training for ordination. It's popularly used as a way for non-religious people to gain the power to conduct marriages.

Since her ordination two weeks ago, Cote already has nearly a dozen marriages scheduled, three which will be performed at midnight Aug. 1.

Cote said it "seemed like a natural fit" that the Taxpayer Center, which provides marriage licenses, also conducts marriages.

"It sort of goes against the grain to tell somebody that we no longer perform that service," she said. "We are doing our best to accommodate people."