Oregon's highest court ruled yesterday that 3,000 same-sex marriages performed a year ago in one county were unlawful, saying the county had overstepped its authority and that the marriage licenses it had issued were unconstitutional under Oregon law.
The Oregon Supreme Court justices focused heavily in their highly anticipated opinion on a vote by Oregonians in November approving a constitutional amendment that defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. But they also ruled that even before the ballot measure was approved by a wide margin, Oregon law had already rendered the 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 court ruling also 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 they would not abandon their quest for full marriage rights, but in the meantime would work to win passage of legislation that would allow civil unions for gay couples. Vermont is the only state that sanctions civil unions, although legislatures in Oregon and Connecticut are debating the option.
"We are going to continue to advocate for civil unions and we are confident that the courts will end the exclusion of same-sex couples from these protections for their relationships and their families," said Rebekah Kassell, a spokeswoman for Basic Rights Oregon, one of the plaintiffs in the Oregon case.
Kassell said that thousands of gay Oregonians - including the daughter of Portland's mayor, Tom Potter - had already celebrated their first wedding anniversaries before the court ruling struck their marriages from the state's matrimonial record.
"I feel our marriage is solid regardless of the decision today," the mayor's 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."
Potter and her partner of 15 years, Pam Moen, 53, a Portland police officer, who have two daughters, 5 and 2, were married 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," Potter said.
Opponents of same-sex marriage said they were particularly irked by Multnomah County's seemingly rogue move on issuing marriage 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 - and, lo and behold, there was a secret gay agenda," said Kelly Clark, an attorney who represented Oregon's Defense of Marriage Coalition in the Supreme Court case. "I think they set their cause back."
Oregon state lawyers argued before the Supreme Court that while Multnomah County's decision to issue the marriage licenses was unconstitutional, gay Oregonians should be afforded the same benefits as married couples. And Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski, along with several state senators, this week introduced a bill 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 Oregon State Attorney General Hardy Myers.
Oregon is one of 17 states with constitutional amendments defining marriage as between a man and a woman, according to the Human Rights Campaign.