By Bob Roehr
Portland, Oregon became the newest epicenter of gay nuptials when Multnomah County began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on March 3.
Portland residents Mary Li, 40, and Rebecca Kennedy, 42, were the first couple married in a ceremony by retired Oregon Supreme Court Justice Betty Roberts. By weeks end more than 1,200 couples had followed their lead.
The gay rights group Basic Rights Oregon had approached four of the five county commissioners in January on the issue. When County Attorney Agnes Sowle issued a legal opinion that refusal to grant a license was a violation of the state constitution’s equal protection, Chairwoman Diane Linn ordered an administration change to allow the issuing of licenses to same-sex couples.
The Oregon Constitution, written in 1857, states: “No law shall be passed granting to any citizen or class of citizens privileges, or immunities, which, upon the same terms, shall not equally belong to all citizens.” The court used that clause to affirm the granting of health insurance and other benefits to the same-sex partners of state employees in a 1998 ruling.
Opponents have charged that the changes should have been made at an open public meeting and the four commissioners are in violation of the law. Supporters argued that no law was changed and therefore no meeting was required; Linn acted on her own. The tactic of secrecy has drawn criticism from many corners.
The right wing Defense of Marriage Coalition filed a lawsuit on March 5 seeking an injunction to block the issuance of licenses and the petition will be heard early in the week. The Christian Coalition has begun organizing a recall petition for at least two of the commissioners and it is seeking to put the issue of marriage on the statewide ballot in November.
Commissioner Lonnie Roberts, who was excluded from the discussions, is proposing an amendment to the county charter to define marriage as only between a man and a woman. He hopes to get it on the May 18 ballot.
A poll of 400 voters, commissioned by the state’s leading newspaper, The Oregonian, and conducted on March 4, showed patterns of opposition to gay marriage that are slightly more moderate than national numbers. There are similar divisions along the lines of age, gender, and party affiliation.
Overall, 54% do not think that same-sex marriage should be legal, but 61% support either marriage or civil unions. Some 53% of voters younger than 35 supported the idea of gay marriage, while only 25% of those older than 55 did so.
The Oregonian said in a March 7 editorial, “On television and from a distance, these unions may look political. Up close, however, they seemed deeply personal and heartfelt It’s appropriate for Oregonians to reflect and consider the unabashed joy among the couples who’ve sought to marry.”
“Like it or not, these licenses force everyone in Oregon to confront their beliefs and examine government’s proper role in marriage. Last week brought it home and made it real. These are not strangers in San Francisco anymore. These are friends, coworkers and neighbors.”
SAN FRANCISCO AND BEYOND
A degree of normalcy returned to San Francisco, albeit with same-sex marriage licenses continuing to be issued during normal business hours. In their brief filed on March 5 with the California Supreme Court, city attorneys asked that the marriages be allowed to continue while the case goes to trial.
The Court is not likely to issue a decision until their regular meeting on March 17. Most legal observers believe that they will refrain from intervening and allow the case to be heard in a trial court, where both parties are due back on March 29.
Attorney General Bill Lockyer has rebuffed pleas by social conservatives that he lock up San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom for violating the law.
Massachusetts is edgily awaiting the next joint session of its legislature meeting as a constitutional convention, on March 11. Gay marriage has exploded as in issue in San Francisco and across the nation in the weeks since they last met.
Local politics have changed as well. State Rep Cheryl Rivera came out as a lesbian after the last session, and openly gay Democrat Angus McQuilken lost a March 2 special election to fill the state senate seat that became vacant when Cheryl Jacques resigned to move to Washington, DC to head up the Human Rights Campaign.
His loss by about 300 votes (out of 37,500 cast), in a district that is ordinarily Republican and where Republican Governor Mitt Romney campaigned heavily for the Republican candidate, is being spun both ways by supporters and opponents of amending the state constitution.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s endorsement of the amendment also may weigh into the equation. As the alternative newspaper the Boston Phoenix wrote, “Not only do Democratic legislators on the fence now have permission from the national party’s putative leader to embrace the separate-but-equal civil-union compromise, but by voting for an amendment they can help defuse some of the ‘Massachusetts liberal’ rhetoric that’s already been lobbed in Kerry’s direction in time for the 2004 presidential election.”
There is no consensus as to what impact these factors will have or what, if anything, will emerge from this session of the constitutional convention. Both sides are rallying their supporters for public demonstrations and quiet lobbying.
In Maryland, the House Judiciary Committee turned down a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage by a vote of 13 to 7, on March 5. It also defeated a bill to prohibit recognition of same-sex marriages conducted elsewhere, but by a slimmer margin of 11 to 9.
Delegate Anne R. Kaiser, 36, declared her own sexual orientation during a hearing on partner benefits, on March 4. “Given the current climate nationally and in the state, this seemed like the time I needed to stand up and offer my colleagues another human face to this issue.” The Democrat, who represents a suburban district between Washington and Baltimore, becomes the third openly gay member of the General Assembly.
Efforts to send antigay marriage amendments to state constitutions have failed to advance this year, often by the slimmest margins, in legislatures in Maine, Indiana, and Wyoming. Amendments will be on the ballot in November in Utah and Ohio.
In Brazil, same-sex relations took another step toward forward when a panel of judges in the southern-most state of Rio Grande do Sul mandated the creation of civil unions “between persons of sound mind and independent of sexual orientation.” The ruling was requested by that state’s human rights commission and affects all officials in the state of 10 million people.