SALEM, Ore. (AP) – Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski said Wednesday he will push for a law allowing gay couples to form civil unions that would give them many of the rights available to married couples.
Kulongoski’s announcement came as the Oregon Supreme Court posted on its web site its plan to rule Thursday on the validity of 3,000 marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples last year in Multnomah County.
Members of the Legislature have been awaiting the court ruling to give them guidance on how to proceed on the issue of same-sex couples.
The governor said Wednesday that he is working with a bipartisan group of senators on the civil unions bill.
Kulongoski’s backing of a civil unions law expands on his announcement in January that he would support legislation extending anti-discrimination protections to gays.
“As I stated in January, we face a great moral challenge to make sure opportunity is an open door through which every citizen can pass – not a revolving door which turns for some and doesn’t budge for others,” he said.
Vermont is the first and still the only state to offer civil unions to gays, passing a law in 2000. Massachusetts has allowed gay marriage since last May.
Multnomah County issued nearly 3,000 marriage licenses to same-sex couples last year before the practice was stopped by Circuit Judge Frank Bearden.
In his ruling, the judge recommended that the 2005 Legislature craft a law that would guarantee gay and lesbian couples the same rights as married couples.
But the ruling was appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court after the Defense of Marriage Coalition challenged the validity of the marriage licenses issued by Multnomah County.
The coalition also sponsored a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage that Oregon voters approved in November.
Few observers were offering predictions of how the Supreme Court would rule in the case Thursday.
Among other options, the court could decide that same-sex couples are entitled to legal alternatives to marriage such as civil unions. The court also could decide, based on the constitutional amendment approved by voters in November, that same-sex couples have no such legal right.
Or the court could send the case back to Multnomah County for further action with no clear direction to the Legislature on how to proceed on same-sex couples.
“There’s lots of side channels the court could take,” said David Fidanque of the American Civil Liberties Union, which during the Supreme Court arguments said legislators should enact a civil unions law.
“Even if the court ducks the issue, it is our hope the Legislature will pass the civil unions legislation,” Fidanque said.
Tim Nashif, head of the Oregon Family Council and the Defense of Marriage Coalition, said he’s hoping the court will simply invalidate the 3,000 marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples in Multnomah County.
Any other action, such as endorsing a civil unions law, would be “pretty hard to swallow” in view of voters’ approval of a gay marriage ban, Nashif said.
The state’s leading gay rights group, Basic Rights Oregon, praised the governor’s decision to move ahead on civil unions legislation.
“All Oregonians should take pride today in Gov. Kulongoski’s tremendous public and personal commitment to ending discrimination,” said Roey Thorpe, the group’s executive director.
Kulongoski said the bill is co-sponsored by Democratic Sens. Kate Brown of Portland and Alan Bates of Ashland and Republican Sens. Frank Morse of Albany and Ben Westlund of Bend.