A second Oregon county has decided to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, a decision legal experts say will likely press the state's highest court to settle the issue soon. Benton County follows in the steps of Multnomah County, the state's most populous, which has issued over 2,400 licenses to same-sex couples since March 3. Benton County is home to Oregon State University and Corvallis, one of the state's most liberal cities, located about 80 miles south of Portland. It will start issuing licenses March 24, county commissioner Linda Modrell said Tuesday after three hours of emotional public testimony. Commissioners passed the measure 2-1 against the advice of county attorney Vance Croney. "It's so wonderful; I wish I had someone to marry," said Kathy VanWormer, 22, a biology and chemistry major at Oregon State and member of the campus-based Rainbow Continuum, a gay rights group.
Legal observers say the decision by a second Oregon county to issue gay marriage licenses likely will press the state's highest court to settle the issue soon and put a stop to independent decisions made in Oregon's 36 counties. "That a second county has decided to issue licenses increases the pressure on the court to do something," said Robert Tsai, professor of constitutional law at the University of Oregon. A legal challenge by a group opposed to gay marriage is pending before the court. At the same time, Tsai said, there is a chance in the short term for greater confusion in the state's marriage practices since gay rights groups could sue counties that refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Gay couples already have been turned away from a marriage office in Lane County, he said, giving them standing for a possible suit in another liberal county.
Kevin Neely, a spokesman for Oregon attorney general Hardy Myers, said Tuesday that the state justice department is studying whether the state can do "something to intervene that would expedite final decision making" by the state supreme court. Modrell said Benton County's decision was based partly on a nonbinding opinion issued last week by Myers, which said a ban on gay marriage probably violates Oregon's constitution despite existing state law that prohibits the practice. "If the attorney general believes it is likely to be deemed unconstitutional and if the other opinions out there believe the law is likely to be unconstitutional, it is just as unconstitutional today as it will be next week, next month, and next year," Modrell said.
Groups opposed to marriage equality for gays denounced Benton County's actions and dismissed the vote as pure politics. "We would call it using the sacred institution of marriage as a political tool," said Tim Nashif, spokesman for the Defense of Marriage Coalition, which is suing Multnomah County and has submitted a proposed ballot initiative to ban gay marriage. "They're not making decisions just for Benton County, they are making it for the entire state." San Francisco started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples about a month ago, but the California supreme court last Thursday ordered a halt. Officials in communities in New York and New Jersey have also been ordered to stop. That has made Portland the last resort for many couples.