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Gay couples start tying knot in Oregon
Updated: 2004-03-04 08:48

A new front in the battle over same-sex marriage opened Wednesday in Portland, where county officials issued dozens of licenses to gay couples after deciding that Oregon law allowed the unions.

New York's attorney general, meanwhile, said gay weddings in that state are illegal, even though he personally would like to see the law changed. His opinion didn't deter a second mayor in the state from announcing not only that he would conduct gay marriages, but that he intends to marry his own same-sex partner.

Mayors and county officials in four states have allowed gay marriages, including thousands in San Francisco, which started the wedding march Feb. 12. The marriages have met with fierce opposition and calls for a constitutional amendment banning the unions.

In Portland, more than 150 gay couples lined up to get marriage licenses after Multnomah County officials decided it would be unconstitutional to deny them.

Among those getting licenses was Christine Tanner, who won a landmark Oregon court ruling in 1998 ordering state and local governments to offer benefits to their employees' same-sex partners.

"There are only so many big events in people's lives — birth, marriage and death," said Tanner, who has raised two children with her partner of 19 years. "It's a big deal. For us, this is symbolic."

Gov. Ted Kulongoski said he favors civil unions but questioned the legality of the marriages.

"Reasonable people can differ, but I think when you read (the state marriage statute) at the time in history when the statute was written I think it is clear they were thinking about a man and a woman getting married," the Democrat said.

Kulongoski said it's up to Democratic Attorney General Hardy Myers to decide what enforcement action to take, if any. A spokesman for Myers said he expected to issue an opinion in a few days.

Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Diane Linn directed Multnomah County to begin issuing the licenses late Tuesday, after consulting with the county attorney. She did so without an official vote, but with the support of three of the county's four other commissioners.

"We will not allow discrimination to continue when the constitution of the state of Oregon grants privileges equally to all citizens," Commissioner Lisa Naito said at a news conference.

Oregon's Republican leadership demanded that Myers stop the marriages immediately.

"I'm very upset that this travesty is taking place in Oregon. It definitely is an insult to the voters and to the people," said Kevin Mannix, chairman of the state Republican Party.

In New York, where one mayor has conducted 25 same-sex marriages in the past week, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer issued an opinion saying state law bars such unions. But he added that it is the courts' job to determine whether the law is constitutional.

"I personally would like to see the law changed, but must respect the law as it now stands," Spitzer said in a statement.

New York City's top lawyer, Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo, also found same-sex marriages to be illegal. Mayor Michael Bloomberg vowed to enforce the law, but declined to discuss his personal views on gay marriage, saying they don't matter.

"I think that people that want to change the marriage laws should go to Albany. That's where laws are made," Bloomberg said. "For those that want to grandstand and recommend that we break the law, I think their time would be much better spent in trying to actually effect the change that they say they want."

Despite Spitzer's opinion, the mayor of New Paltz, a college town about 75 miles north of Manhattan, said he will conduct another 10 to 20 marriages this weekend. The Ulster County district attorney has charged Mayor Jason West with 19 criminal counts for some of the marriages he already has conducted, but the prosecutor lacks the authority to stop West from performing more weddings.

"The constitution is clear that I cannot discriminate in who I marry," said the 26-year-old West. He added that he has 1,200 gay couples on a waiting list.

Wednesday evening, West appeared in town court and pleaded not guilty. Outside the courthouse about 200 supporters gave West a hero's welcome, cheering and singing as a jazz trio played "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

"I think that he is a patriot and I think he's a civil rights leader," said Mike Katz, a student at the State University at New Paltz. "We're making history here."

Village Trustee Robert Hebel said he intends to seek a temporary restraining order Thursday to stop West from marrying same-sex couples.

Mayor John Shields of Nyack, about 20 miles north of Manhattan, said Wednesday that he will begin conducting weddings as early as this week. Shields said planned to seek a license himself to marry his same-sex partner.

"What do you do when you're faced with injustice?" Shields said. "What did the women do in the suffrage movement? They marched. They were arrested. They did what they had to do to get their rights."

In California, the Campaign for California Families, a conservative group, demanded that Attorney General Bill Lockyer follow the lead of New York officials and file criminal charges against San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was the first to authorize gay weddings.

Lockyer spokeswoman Hallye Jordan said that although it is a misdemeanor to marry a same-sex couple in California, "the attorney general believes the best way to resolve the issue is to seek a final resolution by the California Supreme Court, which we are aggressively pursuing."

Also Wednesday, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., debated the issue, with Republican senators such as Majority Leader Bill Frist asking Congress to embrace a Constitutional amendment banning them.

"Same-sex marriage is likely to spread through all 50 states in the coming years," Frist said. "It is becoming increasingly clear that Congress must act."

Same-sex marriage licenses also have been issued by a county clerk in New Mexico, but the state attorney general declared the licenses invalid.

In Massachusetts, same-sex marriages have the approval of the state's highest court — but the state-sanctioned marriages are not expected to start until May.

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