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Oregon the New Flash Point for Gay 'I Do's'

Opponents in Portland vow lawsuit after county begins issuing same-sex licenses. Pastors push to get a ban of such unions on the November ballot.

March 05, 2004|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. — Opponents of same-sex marriage, surprised and outraged by one county's decision this week to issue licenses to gay and lesbian couples, have joined forces and plan to bring a legal challenge as early as today. Local religious leaders also will push for a measure on the November ballot that would outlaw such unions.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who said he felt "blindsided" by Multnomah County's "secret" actions, also has asked other Oregon counties not to follow suit until the state attorney general issues an opinion, which could come next week.

Meanwhile, Multnomah County issued a steady stream of marriage licenses Thursday, and dozens of couples took part in assembly-line wedding ceremonies at Keller Auditorium in Portland, where hundreds had exchanged vows a day earlier.

County Chairwoman Diane Linn ordered clerks to begin issuing the licenses Wednesday after a county attorney ruled that restricting marriage to the union of a man and a woman discriminated against gay and lesbian couples, in violation of the state constitution. More than 400 same-sex couples received marriage licenses that day.

The controversy has made Portland a focal point in the nationwide debate over gay marriage, foreshadowing what could spread throughout the Pacific Northwest. In Seattle, 180 miles to the north, the American Civil Liberties Union said Thursday that it would seek to make same-sex marriage legal in Washington state by overturning a law limiting marriage to heterosexual couples.

Also on Thursday, about three dozen same-sex couples in New York City were denied licenses by the clerk's office, one day after the state attorney general said that New York law barred gay and lesbian marriage.

The issue of gay rights is not new to Oregon.

Since 1992, voters have defeated three attempts to restrict gay rights. The votes were close, each time reflecting the cultural divide between liberal urbanites and conservatives living in the state's small towns and rural areas. Multnomah County, which encompasses most of Portland, is the most liberal and populous region of the state.

In 2000, voters narrowly defeated a measure that would have barred schools from promoting or sanctioning homosexuality.

"This fight [over gay marriage] is just gearing up," said Tim Nashif, a political consultant and head of the newly formed Defense of Marriage Coalition. The group, made up of Portland-area church leaders, is spearheading the legal challenge.

Nashif said the group will file a lawsuit contending that the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners broke the law because one member was left out of closed-door meetings on the marriage license issue. The board also excluded the public, which Nashif said violated public-hearing laws requiring that citizens be able to participate in major policy changes.

Coalition attorneys said they would ask that Multnomah County be barred from issuing any more marriage licenses to same-sex couples until the matter was resolved by the courts.

The suit also will challenge the county's interpretation of the state marriage law, a topic broached by Kulongoski, a former attorney general and state Supreme Court justice. The governor, a Democrat who endorses civil unions but opposes same-sex marriage, said Wednesday in a statement that it was clear the authors of the law had in mind a man and a woman when talking about marriage.

Attorneys for the ACLU and Basic Rights Oregon, a gay advocacy group, said they would wait for the lawsuit before commenting, but emphasized they would provide whatever legal help Multnomah County needed.

The county action came after a series of closed-door meetings involving four out of the five commissioners, plus representatives of the ACLU and Basic Rights Oregon. The group, whose discussions began in late January, asked for a legal opinion from the county attorney.

Once the opinion came in, Commissioner Lisa Naito said the council was obligated to act. Naito said the decision was "a matter of basic civil rights" and was required under the state constitution. Commissioner Serena Cruz characterized it as a "moral obligation," not requiring public approval.

Left out of the discussions was Commissioner Lonnie Roberts, who represents eastern Multnomah County, the most conservative part of the greater Portland area. Roberts, who is against gay marriage, accused his fellow commissioners Thursday of acting "in a clandestine manner" and subverting the democratic process.

Had he been included in the discussions, Roberts said, he would have brought it to the media and forced a public airing.

Roberts predicted that the process the county chose would backfire on the gay and lesbian community. By trying to exclude the public, he said, the board had unwittingly inspired same-sex marriage opponents to join together and had persuaded others with less-formed opinions to work with them.

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