Judge upholds Oregon’s gay marriage ban

SALEM, Ore. (AP) – Oregon’s voter-approved ban on gay marriage was upheld Friday by a judge who turned aside arguments from gay rights supporters that the measure is flawed and should not have been put to a statewide vote.


The state’s largest gay rights organization later said it would appeal the ruling while continuing its political fight in the Legislature to gain more rights and benefits for gay and lesbian couples.


But the group that sponsored the gay marriage ban said the ruling honored the will of the voters and protected Oregonians’ right to enact constitutional changes via the ballot.


In his ruling, Marion County Circuit Judge Joseph Guimond rejected opponents’ arguments that Measure 36 contained too many changes that should have been voted on as separate amendments and that it was improperly submitted to voters.


Friday’s ruling was the latest setback for gay rights backers in Oregon, where more than 3,000 marriage licenses were granted to same-sex couples in Multnomah County in the spring of 2004 before a judge halted the practice.


The constitutional ban on gay marriage, called Measure 36, was overwhelmingly approved by Oregon voters in the November 2004 election. Seventeen other states have similar constitutional bans on same-sex marriages.


The Oregon amendment reads: "It is the policy of Oregon, and its political subdivisions, that only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or legally recognized as a marriage."


Opponents of the measure filed a lawsuit contending Measure 36 contained too many changes because it not only amended the state constitution to forbid same-sex marriage, but also interferes with local governments’ home rule rights by barring them from recognizing gay marriages that might have been performed elsewhere.


Under Oregon law, a ballot measure can make only one change to the state constitution.


The judge sided with supporters of the law who said the measure only clarified marriage law in a simple one-sentence proposition.


The state’s leading gay rights group, Basic Rights Oregon, said it was "very disappointed" with the decision and would ask the Oregon Court of Appeals to consider the case.


"We continue to believe that Measure 36 was too radical a change to the equal protection clause of the Oregon Constitution to simply be considered an amendment," said Roey Thorpe, the group’s executive director.


"Gay and lesbian people are not second-class citizens and should not be treated as such, and their children deserve the full protection of having married parents," she said.


Another Basic Rights spokeswoman, Rebekah Kassell, said the group will push ahead with efforts to elect more legislators sympathetic to gay rights in hopes of winning approval of bills to enhance and protect the rights of same-sex couples, she said.


"Nothing about today’s ruling changes the fact that we believe the state is constitutionally obligated to provide the same legal protections to all Oregon families," Kassell said.


The Defense of Marriage Coalition, which led the effort to pass the gay marriage ban, hailed Friday’s ruling as a victory for voters.


"If this language, as simple as it is, had been struck down by the courts, it would have taken away the people’s rights to amend their constitution at all," said Tim Nashif, political director for the group.


In their lawsuit, opponents also argued the Measure 36 was improperly placed on the ballot because it was a constitutional revision, not just an amendment, that "violates the fundamental principles of liberty and justice" by banning same-sex marriage.


Such a change would require a two-thirds vote of both the Oregon House and Senate before it could be submitted to voters, they said. The judge rejected that argument as well, saying that no court has conclusively defined the difference between an amendment and a revision.


Short of achieving full marriage rights, gay rights backers mounted an effort in the Legislature earlier this year to pass a civil unions bill extending most of the benefits and rights of marriage to same-sex couples. Such a bill was approved by the Democrat-controlled Senate, but later died in the Republican-controlled House.