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Tuesday, March 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:45 A.M.

County commissioners uphold gay marriage in Oregon

By William McCall
The Associated Press

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Gay marriages will continue in Oregon after a county board decided today to keep issuing licenses to same-sex couples despite a nonbinding opinion by the state attorney general saying the practice is illegal.

The Multnomah County board of commissioners issued a statement shortly after 11:30 a.m. today announcing it would not ban the licenses.

"Multnomah County will continue to issue 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," the county commissioners said in a written statement.

Portland is the only major city in the United States that is issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, according to Basic Rights Oregon, a gay-rights group.

Multnomah County has issued more than 2,000 marriage licenses to gay couples since March 3, when county commissioners said refusing to do so is unconstitutional.

A spokesman for Attorney General Hardy Myers said the state will immediately review the county decision.

"Again, our goal is to get a final resolution from the courts on this issue as expeditiously as possible," said spokesman Kevin Neely.

But he said the state must consider whether it can take any action to block issuance of the marriage licenses after Myers determined last week the practice is illegal under state law.

"We're looking at legal remedies available to us and deciding what our office is going to do in response, if anything," Neely said.

In his opinion released last week, Myers predicted the Oregon Supreme Court likely would rule that banning gay marriage license applications is unconstitutional, but he urged Multnomah County to follow current state law until such a ruling is made.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski also had urged the county to halt issuance of the marriage licenses until the court ruled.
 
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The governor was not immediately available for comment today.

The commissioners noted in their announcement today that the attorney general's nonbinding opinion "offers no assurance whatsoever that Multnomah County will not be sued successfully by any same-sex couple who is denied a license."

Kelly Clark, an attorney for the Defense of Marriage Coalition, called that concern "utterly absurd."

"Any first-year law student can tell you that you can't get this issue into court as a lawsuit against the county unless it's a civil rights case, and a civil rights case needs to be about a clearly established constitutional right," said Clark, a former Republican state lawmaker.

"Gay marriage is not a clearly established constitutional right," Clark said.

The county decision was praised by Roey Thorpe of Basic Rights Oregon, who is leading the effort to legalize gay marriage in Oregon.

"It's very good news for us," Thorpe said. "It's really an amazing thing."

Couples waiting outside a county office building to apply for marriage licenses cheered, kissed and embraced after learning the commission's decision. Some came from as far away as Hawaii to get married.

"I'm so excited, I'm so happy," said John Bergmann, who traveled to Portland from Sacramento, Calif., to marry his partner Gary Hughes.

One man yelled: "Thank you Portland. We're legal. We're getting married. My knees are shaking."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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