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Same-Sex Marriage Battle Moves to Seattle

With the support of the mayor, six couples sue King County after being denied licenses. A bid to block gay weddings in the Portland area fails.

March 09, 2004|Lynn Marshall and Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writers

SEATTLE — Six same-sex couples filed suit against King County on Monday after being denied marriage licenses, and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels immediately pledged his support for such unions, ordering city departments to recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian municipal workers who wed elsewhere.

"We pay taxes in King County; we like living here," said Mala Nagarajan, 35, who joined the lawsuit with her partner of six years, Vega Subrananiam, 38. "We want our marriage to be recognized -- to have the same legal protections and rights heterosexual couples have."

In Oregon, a group that opposes same-sex marriage unsuccessfully sought a restraining order Monday to bar clerks in Multnomah County from issuing licenses to gay and lesbian couples. More than 1,300 couples have taken out marriage licenses since Oregon's most populous county, which includes Portland, changed its policy to permit gays and lesbians to marry last week.

"It is unfortunate that the sacred institution of marriage would become part of somebody's political agenda," said Tim Nashif, a spokesman for Oregon's Defense of Marriage Coalition. That organization filed suit Friday to challenge the process by which Multnomah County commissioners had moved to give out marriage licenses to gay and lesbian applicants.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 20, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Same-sex marriages -- An article March 9 in Section A about same-sex marriages said it was the practice in California and New York for cities to issue licenses. In California, counties issue licenses. San Francisco issues licenses because it is a city and county.

The latest developments in the Pacific Northwest added to the momentum of a movement -- and countermovement -- that began when a November court decision made Massachusetts the first state to legalize gay and lesbian marriage. Following a clarification in February from the same court, the ruling is to take effect May 17.

For supporters of same-sex marriage, that decision opened the floodgates. With the blessing of Mayor Gavin Newsom, San Francisco city clerks have performed thousands of gay and lesbian marriages since Feb. 12. The mayor of a small town in New York also has officiated at more than two dozen gay weddings. Then came last week's torrent of marriage licenses in Oregon. And Monday, a gay couple were married in Asbury Park, N.J., after being issued a license by city officials who say state law there does not explicitly ban such unions.

"Folks in Seattle have watched with envy as marriage has spread up and down the West Coast," said Jamie Pederson, a Seattle attorney who served as one of the lead lawyers in the suit filed Monday.

Same-sex marriage is legal in neighboring British Columbia, Pederson pointed out. "Then San Francisco, and just last week, Multnomah County," he said. "There is a huge demand for it here -- not just in Seattle but statewide."

Washington law prevents Seattle's mayor from authorizing same-sex marriage because licenses are issued by counties, not cities -- as is the practice in California and New York.

Seattle in 1989 extended domestic partner benefits to city employees in same-sex relationships. Nickels said Monday that he would ask the City Council to endorse an ordinance broadening those benefits to everyone in Seattle.

"When my wife, Sharon, and I want to do something like refinance our house or visit someone in the hospital, absolutely no one challenges us about the legitimacy of our marital status," Nickels said Monday. "It's long past time that gay and lesbian couples who love each other and get married receive the same recognition."

King County Executive Ron Sims on Monday greeted the six same-sex couples who came to the county administration building to seek marriage licenses. Some carried babies in their arms.

Although forbidden by law to issue the licenses, Sims held the door open for the couples and said: "I believe that the law prohibiting same-sex marriages is wrong, but the courts must decide this issue."

The lawsuit filed Monday seeks to overturn Washington's 1998 Defense of Marriage Act, which limits marriage to a union between a man and a woman. Washington is one of 38 states to adopt such a law.

In Oregon on Monday, Nashif said his group had filed suit to bar the issuing of any more licenses because four county commissioners had acted improperly. Nashif said a fifth commissioner -- who opposes gay and lesbian marriage -- was excluded from the board meetings where the issue was discussed and decided.

Nashif also said the meeting of the four commissioners failed to seek public comment. Only one organization -- which Nashif characterized as "a local gay group" -- was included in the discussion, he said.

"Any major policy decision like this is deserving of public debate and hearings, and none of those things took place," he said. "This was totally done in secret."

He called the action in Multnomah County "political strategy, so that [supporters of same-sex marriage] would legalize it for as long as they could, issue as many marriage licenses as they can, so that ultimately, when there are court challenges, you would be taking something away, not giving it to them."

Scott Farris, a spokesman for Portland Mayor Vera Katz, said Monday that some opponents of gay marriage also have launched a drive in Oregon to place a constitutional amendment banning such unions on the November ballot.

Farris said Katz's "only role" in the Multnomah County controversy has been to issue a statement in support of same-sex marriage.

*

Marshall reported from Seattle and Mehren from Boston.

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