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Oregon Supreme Court Voids Same-Sex Marriage Licenses

Justices Say County Can't Ignore State Matrimony Laws

By William McCall
Associated Press
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page A03

PORTLAND, Ore., April 14 -- The Oregon Supreme Court on Thursday nullified nearly 3,000 marriage licenses issued to gay couples a year ago by Portland's Multnomah County, saying a county cannot go against state matrimonial law.

"Oregon law currently places the regulation of marriage exclusively within the province of the state's legislative power," the high court said in its unanimous ruling.

Mary Li, right, and partner Becky Kennedy, the first same-sex couple to get a marriage license in Oregon, talk to reporters in Salem after the state Supreme Court's decision. The ruling nullified almost 3,000 licenses issued by Multnomah County last spring. (Rick Bowmer -- AP)

The court said state law bans same-sex marriage. It also noted that Oregon voters approved a constitutional amendment last November that even more explicitly prohibits the practice.

Kevin Neely, spokesman for the state attorney general's office, said the court left the big issue -- civil unions for gay couples -- for another day. "I suspect the issue will be resolved by either legislation or by additional litigation," he said.

Legislators had been waiting for the court's ruling for guidance. On Wednesday, Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) said he will push for a law allowing gay couples to form civil unions that would give them many of the rights and privileges of marriage.

Multnomah County, which includes much of Portland and is the state's most populous county, began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in March of last year, its county commissioners arguing that not doing so would violate the Oregon Constitution.

A judge stopped the practice about six weeks later, but not before nearly 3,000 gay couples had wed.

Similarly, San Francisco started issuing thousands of marriage licenses to gay couples in February 2004. The spree of weddings was also shut down by the courts, and those marriages were likewise declared invalid, though a constitutional challenge to California's law against same-sex marriage is still pending.

In Oregon, Marte Sheehan, who married Linda Duchek last spring, said she was disappointed with the ruling but hopes the legislature passes a bill allowing civil unions.

"I believe that ultimately the legislature will do the right thing," she said.

But Kelly Clark, the attorney for the Defense of Marriage Coalition noted, "Two West Coast liberal states now, both California and Oregon, have both said that local governments don't have authority to take the law into their own hands."

"It certainly sends a signal to the rest of the country," Clark said.

The ruling came a day after Connecticut lawmakers passed legislation that would make it the second state, after Vermont, to offer civil unions to gay couples.

Massachusetts has allowed same-sex marriage since last May.

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