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Oregon Stands Solo on Same-Sex Licenses

One county continues to issue the marriage documents despite the attorney general's plea. New York files charges against two ministers.

March 16, 2004|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — A county board in Portland, Ore., decided Monday to continue issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite an opinion by the state attorney general that such unions are illegal.

The decision makes Multnomah County the only jurisdiction in the nation still issuing the licenses to gay partners. The California Supreme Court on Thursday ordered San Francisco to stop the practice.

In New York, an upstate district attorney filed what are believed to be the first criminal charges against two clergy members for marrying 13 couples in same-sex ceremonies. Unitarian Universalist ministers Kay Greenleaf and Dawn Sangrey, who performed the ceremonies in New Paltz, face up to two years in jail.

New York Atty. Gen. Eliot Spitzer said this month that state law did not permit same-sex weddings, and he urged local officials not to perform them until court challenges to the law had been resolved.

Oregon Atty. Gen. Hardy Myers, in a nonbinding opinion similar to Spitzer's that was issued Friday, said that gay marriage was illegal under state law but that banning such unions probably would violate Oregon's Constitution.

Myers, in a sentiment echoed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski, implored Multnomah -- the state's most populous county -- to stop issuing marriage licenses to gay couples until the Oregon Supreme Court ruled on the issue. It could be more than a year before the high court hears the case.

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, in response to Myers' opinion, said in a statement Monday morning that the county would continue issuing marriage licenses "to all couples, consistent with the Oregon Constitution, until such time as the Supreme Court of Oregon or the citizens of Oregon dictate another course of action."

Multnomah County, at the behest of board Chairwoman Diane Linn, began issuing licenses to gay couples March 3. Since then, an estimated 2,000 gay couples have flocked to Portland, the county seat, to be married. Assembly-line wedding ceremonies have been taking place almost daily.

"We're very pleased that Multnomah County has such a commitment to upholding the constitutional rights of its residents," said Rebekah Kassell, a spokeswoman for Basic Rights Oregon, a gay advocacy group.

Kassell said she was disappointed with Kulongoski and Myers for asking other Oregon counties to refrain from following Multnomah. She also said Basic Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union were prepared to defend against all legal challenges.

Opponents of gay marriage, however, condemned the county's decision.

"When are they going to read Diane Linn her rights? She's breaking the law," said Tim Nashif, a Portland-area political consultant and head of the newly formed Defense of Marriage Coalition. The group is made up mostly of Portland-area ministers.

The coalition went to court to challenge the gay unions and to request a temporary restraining order on the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but a Multnomah County judge denied the motion last week.

"I think the county's decision sends the message that if you're a public official, you can break the law any time you want," Nashif said. "The state attorney general said gay marriage is illegal in the state of Oregon....We're waiting for somebody to enforce the law."

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Times staff writer Josh Getlin in New York contributed to this report.

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