Originally published on Advocate.com May 15 2004 12:00 AM ET
The Oregon supreme court has approved the ballot title for an initiative to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. If supporters of same-sex marriage don't ask the court to reconsider within five days, the authors of the ballot title can start gathering signatures by the middle of next week. To place the proposed constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot in November, opponents of same-sex marriage would have to collect 108,840 valid signatures by the July 2 deadline. If that happens, voters will be asked to resolve a debate that has been dividing Oregon since the Multnomah County board of commissioners announced in March that the county would start issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. More than 3,000 same-sex couples received the licenses before the county stopped issuing them in April, pending resolution in the courts.
Oregon law says marriage is a civil contract between males and females at least 17 years of age who solemnize the marriage by declaring that "they take each other to be husband and wife." In approving the ballot title, the court rejected opponents' request to change the ballot wording to say the proposal would place limits on the Oregon constitution's guarantee of equal treatment for all citizens. The constitution contains no reference to marriage. Opponents of the proposed ban on same-sex marriage, however, note that Article 1, Section 20, states: "No law shall be passed granting to any citizen or class of citizens privileges, or immunities, which, upon the same terms, shall not equally belong to all citizens." The initiative would amend the Oregon constitution to read: "It is the policy of Oregon, and its political subdivisions, that only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or legally recognized as a marriage."
Petition circulators would have about six weeks to collect the needed signatures. Tim Nashif of the Defense of Marriage Coalition said his group hopes to emulate the signature-gathering success that petitioners had last year in placing the legislature's $800 million tax increase on the ballot. Their petitions forced a February 3 vote, in which Oregonians rejected the proposed increase. In that campaign, the Taxpayer Defense Fund collected more than 118,000 valid signatures in seven weeks beginning in early October. Russ Walker of Citizens for a Sound Economy, which led the signature drive, said supporters of the marriage initiative may collect signatures faster than his group did. "The way people react to this issue makes the way they react to the tax issue look everyday," Walker said. "There is this reemerging group of social conservatives that aren't nearly as energetic on fiscal issues."
Basic Rights Oregon, a gay rights advocacy organization opposing the marriage initiative, will start preparing to campaign against the proposal, executive director Roey Thorpe said. "Securing a permanent right to marry and protecting the 3,000 marriages that already exist are our top priorities at this time," she said. "So we will be putting together a campaign because we can't wait to find out if they have enough signatures."
In related news, a Multnomah County judge on Thursday clarified that the status of the roughly 3,000
marriage licenses already issued to same-sex couples in the state must be decided by either the state supreme court or the legislature. Circuit court judge Frank Bearden last month ordered the state Office of Vital Statistics to register the marriages after ruling that the state's marriage law violates civil rights protections in the Oregon constitution. The state attorney general's office objected, claiming that registering the marriages while the larger issue of same-sex matrimony was still undecided in Oregon would mean possibly giving benefits to couples and later taking them away. Attorney General Hardy Myers asked for a stay on May 6.
In a letter sent to attorneys in the case, Bearden clarified on Wednesday that registering the marriages would not require the state to recognize them as "valid," said Kevin Neely, a spokesman for the attorney general's office. That means the state will not have to provide benefits to same-sex couples as the case moves through the appeals process, Neely said. "In short, the supreme court will ultimately decide the validity or lack thereof of the already issued licenses," Bearden wrote in the letter. Neely said state attorneys are still reviewing the letter and had not decided whether to drop their request for a stay.