Disputes in Oregon over the legality of gay marriages will be put on the fast track to the state supreme court under a lawsuit that's being prepared by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The civil rights group will bring the suit on behalf of nine same-sex couples from three Oregon counties, who intend to sue the state in Multnomah County circuit court for failing to register their marriages in the office of vital statistics. The lawsuit was expected by noon Wednesday.
The suit has resulted in the consolidation of several other legal challenges to gay marriage brought by conservative lawmakers and Christian pastors, after Multnomah County commissioners decided three weeks ago to grant the licenses. The nine couples were recruited by Basic Rights Oregon, the gay rights group that has been most responsible for pushing the issue in the state. The couples live in Multnomah, Benton, and Lane counties, said Jan Carson, associate director of the ACLU's office in Portland.
The couples will file as representatives of "hundreds of thousands of other [same-sex] couples in the state" who cannot have their marriages registered, Carson said.
Kevin Neely, spokesman for Oregon attorney general Hardy Myers, said the state will file its response by April 5 and that a decision by Multnomah County circuit judge Frank Bearden is expected by the end of that month under an expedited process agreed to by both opponents and supporters of gay marriage. That will set the stage for an immediate appeal to the Oregon supreme court. But Neely warned there is no way to predict how fast the case will reach the state's highest court.
Under an agreement reached Friday between the ACLU, the state attorney general's office, and opponents of gay marriage, the Defense of Marriage Coalition will be allowed to intervene to represent opponents of gay marriage. The coalition has agreed to drop other lawsuits when that happens.
The expected filing follows a decision Monday by Benton County commissioners to postpone issuing licenses for both gay and heterosexual couples until a ruling is handed down in the Multnomah County case. The attorney general had pressed commissioners to reconsider issuing the licenses so the issue could be decided more efficiently in a single lawsuit in Multnomah County.
Benton County's decision to issue the licenses followed in the footsteps of Multnomah County, where Portland is located, and raised the possibility of a mixed system of marriage in Oregon, with some counties allowing gay marriage and others forbidding it.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski has urged county officials to allow the courts to settle the issue, although the Defense of Marriage Coalition has also filed an initiative for a statewide ballot measure to approve a state constitutional amendment that would limit marriage to a man and a woman.