PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – The Oregon Supreme Court on Thursday nullified nearly 3,000 marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples by Multnomah County a year ago, saying a single county couldn’t take such action on its own.
The ruling is being hailed as a major victory by gay marriage opponents who claim it reflects a trend toward reinforcing traditional values.
But advocates say they will continue to fight for recognition of gay and lesbian relationships while they push for a statewide law on civil unions to ensure equal benefits for all couples.
“We feel great sadness, but we also have faith that this isn’t the end,” said Mary Li. Li and her partner Rebecca Kennedy were the first lesbian couple to be married last year in Multnomah County.
“Our family deserves the same kind of protection that your family has,” Li said. “We will stop at nothing to get that.”
The Oregon Supreme Court, however, said in its unanimous ruling that it was up to the Legislature to regulate marriage – not the courts, and not local government.
“It’s a clear ruling,” said Kelly Clark, the attorney for the Defense of Marriage Coalition, which represented gay marriage opponents.
“Two West Coast liberal states now, both California and Oregon, have both said that local governments don’t have authority to take the law into their own hands,” Clark said. “It certainly sends a signal to the rest of the country.”
In February 2004, weeks before Multnomah County began issuing marriage licenses to gays and lesbians, the city of San Francisco started issuing thousands of marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
California courts ordered the city to stop and declared the marriage licenses invalid, although a constitutional challenge to California’s law against gay marriage is still pending.
Multnomah County commissioners ordered marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples in March 2004 after reviews by the county attorney and an independent law firm indicated it could be unconstitutional to deny requests for the licenses.
Six weeks later, a judge ordered the county to stop issuing the licenses in a ruling that found no right to gay marriage but suggested that denying gays and lesbians the rights afforded to married couples could be unconstitutional.
The case was appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, which ruled Thursday that all the marriage licenses were invalid because the county did not have the authority to issue them under a state law that clearly limited marriage to heterosexual couples.
The court also noted that Oregon voters amended the state constitution last November to specify that marriage is between a man and a woman, ending any constitutional argument.
Tim Nashif, head of the Defense of Marriage Coalition and the Oregon Family Council, said the battle over gay marriage was less about benefits and more about the symbolism of a social institution.
“We’re not against some sort of benefits plan that would help people in general,” Nashif said. “What they really want is same-sex marriage, or some sort of civil marriage contract. It’s a recognition and equality issue, it’s not a benefits issue.”
The Oregon ruling came a day after Connecticut lawmakers passed legislation that would make it the second state, after Vermont, to offer civil unions to same-sex couples.
The Oregon Supreme Court did not mention civil unions, but Gov. Ted Kulongoski on Wednesday proposed a civil union bill to a legislature that had been awaiting the ruling for guidance.
“I suspect the issue will be resolved by either legislation or by additional litigation,” said Kevin Neely, spokesman for the state attorney general’s office.
Massachusetts has allowed gay marriage since last May.