Left at the Altar

Jon Perr

The battle for marriage equality continues to generate heat, if not light.

On the right coast, the Connecticut House  passed civil union legislation.  That bill, previously approved by the Senate in Hartford, will almost certainly be signed by Republican Governor M. Jodi Rell.  This legislative landmark will make Connecticut the first state to enact civil unions not in response to a judicial ruling.

But back home, The Oregonian reports that the Oregon Supreme Court has just invalidated the marriages of 3,000 same-sex couples.  While the Court did not address whether gay and lesbian Oregonians should enjoy the same benefits as married couples, the opinion constitutes a major defeat for Multnomah County and the couples:

In summary, we conclude as follows. First, since the effective date of Measure 36, marriage in Oregon has been limited under the Oregon Constitution to opposite-sex couples. Second, Oregon statutory law in existence before the effective date of Measure 36 also limited, and continues to limit, the right to obtain marriage licenses to opposite-sex couples. Third, marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples in Multnomah County before that date were issued without authority and were void at the time that they were issued, and we therefore need not consider the independent effect, if any, of Measure 36 on those marriage licenses. In short, none of plaintiffs' claims properly before the court is well taken. Finally, the abstract question whether ORS chapter 106 confers marriage benefits in violation of Article I, section 20, of the Oregon Constitution is not properly before the court.

The ruling highlights the different circumstances here in Oregon.  In Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled 4-3 in favor of same-sex couples that the Massachusetts constitution could not bar their marriages.  In California, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome was ruled to have over-stepped his bounds in authorizing same-sex marriages contrary to a recently passed state ballot measure.  However, a state court has since ruled in favor of same-sex couples challenging that law under the California constitution.  That case is destined for the California Supreme Court.  (For some of the background on relevant U.S. Supreme Court cases, see "States' Blights.")

In the Oregon decision today, the Court ruled both that the pre-36 statutory language was clear in its intent (regarding marriage as involving a man and a woman) and that Multnomah County officials did not have an implicit grant of authority to "prescribe remedies for any perceived constitutional shortcomings."  As a result, the Court concluded that it need not consider the impact of Measure 36 in voiding the marriages.  The issue of equal benefits, it also ruled, was not before the Court.

With today's defeat, proponents of marriage equality will look to join the coming debate over civil union legislation.  Governor Kulongoski, with the support of Republican Senator Ben Westlund, is supporting Senate Bill 1000.  Measure 36 advocates will oppose it, though some are crafting alternative "equal benefits" approaches based instead on relationship status (i.e. same-sex couples would be treated in the same way as edlerly siblings living together).

In Oregon, as in the rest of the nation, the battle continues.

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