Oregon Supreme Court Invalidates Same-Sex Marriages

Published: April 15, 2005
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/15/national/15gays.html?th&emc=th  (must register to view original article)

Oregon's highest court ruled yesterday that 3,000 same-sex marriages performed a year ago in one county were unlawful, saying that the county had overstepped its authority and that the licenses it had issued were unconstitutional under Oregon law.

The justices on the Oregon Supreme Court focused heavily in their highly anticipated opinion on a vote by Oregonians in November that widely approved a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. They also ruled that even before the approval Oregon law had already rendered the same-sex marriages, conducted last March and April in Multnomah County, illegal.

"County officials were entitled to have their doubts about the constitutionality of limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples," Justice W. Michael Gillette wrote for the court. "But marriage and the laws governing it are matters of statewide, not local, concern."

The ruling said, "Today, marriage in Oregon - an institution once limited to opposite-sex couples only by statute - now is so limited by the State Constitution, as well."

Supporters of same-sex marriage said that they would not abandon their quest for full marriage rights, but that in the meantime they would work to win passage of bills that would allow civil unions for gay couples.

Vermont is the sole state that sanctions civil unions, although legislatures in Oregon and Connecticut are debating them. Massachusetts is the lone state where same-sex marriage is legal.

"We are going to continue to advocate for civil unions," said Rebekah Kassell, a spokeswoman for Basic Rights Oregon, a plaintiff in the Oregon case, "and we are confident that the courts will end the exclusion of same-sex couples from these protections for their relationships and their families."

Ms. Kassell said thousands of gay Oregonians, including the daughter of Mayor Tom Potter of Portland, had celebrated their first wedding anniversaries.

"I feel our marriage is solid regardless of the decision today," the daughter, Katie Potter, 40, said in a telephone interview. "I realize and acknowledge that the state is not going to accept it and acknowledge it. But we were married, and I'll never again feel like what it - surprisingly - felt like after getting married that day."

Ms. Potter and her partner of 15 years, Pam Moen, 53, who have two daughters, 5 and 2, were married on March 3, 2004, as soon as word spread that Multnomah County, which includes Portland, was issuing the marriage licenses to gay couples.

"It was enjoying that moment of having, suddenly, someone say there is validity to this, outside of us," Ms. Potter said.

Opponents of same-sex marriage said they were particularly irked by Multnomah's issuing licenses not sanctioned by the state.

"The vast middle of the electorate out there was always worried that there might be some secret gay agenda," said Kelly Clark, a lawyer who represented Oregon's Defense of Marriage Coalition in the case. "And, lo and behold, there was a secret gay agenda."

"I think they set their cause back," Mr. Clark added.

Lawyers for the state argued before the court that while the decision to issue the licenses was unconstitutional, gay Oregonians should have the same benefits as married couples.

Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski, along with several state senators, introduced a bill this week that would allow civil unions under state law.

"The state's position from the outset was that the fundamental issue was whether or not same-sex couples were entitled to the rights and privileges of marriage, not just the institution of marriage itself," said Kevin Neely, a spokesman for the Oregon attorney general, Hardy Myers.

Oregon is one of 17 states with constitutional amendments that define marriage as between a man and a woman, according to the Human Rights Campaign. At least 18 state legislatures are considering similar measures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Some states have also taken up the question of what benefits to extend to domestic partners, including gay couples. Experts say California has come closest to offering virtually all the benefits of civil unions.

Legal cases on whether gay men and lesbians can marry are winding their way through state and county courts in at least six states, according to the Human Rights Campaign. They include New York, Washington and California, where thousands of same-sex marriages were performed in San Francisco though later voided the California Supreme Court.

National gay rights groups insist that same-sex marriage remains their ultimate goal, even if the focus has recently turned to civil unions in some states.

"We recognize that like any social change in this country, it's going to be a long-term fight," Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said. "One that will be marked by taking three steps forward and two steps back."