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Oregon county issues marriage licenses to gay couples

Oregon county issues marriage licenses to gay couples

Gay and lesbian couples were lining up Wednesday morning to become the first to be issued marriage licenses in Portland, Ore., after Multnomah County, the most populous in the state, approved same-sex unions. The first in the growing line of at least 50 couples was Christine Tanner, who won a landmark Oregon court of appeals ruling in 1998 requiring all state and local governments in Oregon to offer spousal benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of their employees. Tanner, a nursing professor at Oregon Health and Science University, said she and her partner have been together for 19 years and raised two children together. "There are only so many big events in people's lives--birth, marriage, and death," said Tanner, who waited overnight in front of a county office in a rainbow-colored lawn chair. "It's a big deal. For us, this is symbolic." The mood was optimistic despite the gray winter morning and chilling drizzle. Basic Rights Oregon joined with the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to host marriages at a downtown hotel and at a civic auditorium. "I grew up Catholic--there were bouquets and bridesmaids and gowns and churches," said Sandra Naranjo, 31, who sat in a lawn chair all night with her partner of 10 years. "But in the end, it's not about the wedding. It's about the rights." Spirits were buoyed by the support of the Multnomah County Commission, which opened the door to same-sex marriage late Tuesday when Chairwoman Diane Linn, after consulting with the county attorney, directed the county to begin issuing the licenses. She did so without an official vote from the four other county commissioners--but with the explicit support of all but one of the other elected officials. "She did it without a vote, but she doesn't need it. She has majority support," said Commissioner Serena Cruz. Another commissioner, Lisa Naito, said careful legal research showed the county must grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples or risk violating the Oregon constitution: "As a state legislator in 1991, I took an oath that directed me to uphold the Oregon constitution. As a Multnomah County commissioner, I again swore to uphold the constitution of our state." She said the county attorney and a law firm hired by the city to review state law agreed the county must allow the marriages. Naito said that granting the marriage licenses does not interfere with any religious group or church but does ensure that couples have the same rights whether they are straight or gay. "Same-sex couples want their relationships to have the same legal weight as heterosexual relationships: the right to inherit assets, own their homes jointly, and cover their families with health insurance," Naito said. Like San Francisco, Portland--the Multnomah County seat and largest city in the state--has long been viewed as a bastion of liberalism. It's an image that stands to be reinforced if same-sex couples are issued marriage licenses. But opposition from Oregon's Republican leadership was swift. "I'm very upset that this travesty is taking place in Oregon," said Kevin Mannix, chairman of the Oregon Republican Party, who called for the attorney general to put a halt to the marriages immediately. "It definitely is an insult to the voters and to the people." But couples had already started making wedding plans as soon as they heard the news. "It's history in the making," said Heather Spotts, 32, a bartender at the Egyptian Club, Oregon's oldest lesbian bar. Jennifer Schneider, 27, was married unofficially in front of 80 friends and relatives last year in Portland. She and her partner are hoping to have their wedding dresses dry-cleaned in time for tying the knot this week. "I'm so glad that they're finally recognizing the commitment I made a year ago," Schneider said. Commissioner Cruz said the county began thinking about taking the step after they were approached by Basic Rights Oregon, a gay rights group. "Many of these couples have been waiting decades, and this is the first time they've been seen as equal under the law," said Roey Thorpe, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon. But Commissioner Lonnie Roberts, the lone member of the county board who did not support the decision, decried the way in which the board "clandestinely" met and chose to go ahead with the controversial licenses behind his back. Oregon is one of 13 states without laws defining marriage as between a man and a woman. State law defines marriage as a "civil contract entered into in person by males at least 17 years of age and females at least 17 years of age." Kevin Neely, spokesman for Attorney General Hardy Myers, said Myers hadn't seen the opinion by the county attorney and would have no immediate comment.

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