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Thursday, March 18, 2004  

Law: Second Oregon county will marry gays

Then there were two. A second county in Oregon has decided to grant marriage licenses to homosexual couples. If you have been following the developments, you know Multnomah County decided, following the vice of counsel, that gays could marry at the beginning of March. The licenses were issued beginning March 3. Hundreds of marriages have taken place since, but under dark clouds, both real and symbolic. Opponents of gay marriage were refused pretrial relief. Last Friday, the state issued a legal opinion saying the applicable statutes allow only female-to-male marriage. However, the attorney general also said those statutes may violate the equal protection clause of the state's constitution. Multnomah County Chairperson Diane Linn released a statement saying the county would continue to issue marriage licenses.

Now, Benton County has joined the fray.

Benton County commissioners voted 2-1 Tuesday to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples beginning next week, a decision that caught all sides of a fractious debate off guard.

Benton joins Multnomah as the only counties in Oregon to approve same-sex marriages, broadening the fight over an issue that everyone expects to eventually be settled by the Oregon Supreme Court.

An interesting aspect of life in Multnomah County and Portland I have not mentioned before is what the disapproving refer to as "government by girls." Most elected officials, including Linn, most of the county council, half the city council and the mayor, are women. The scuttlebutt around town blames the approval of gay marriage on "GBG." Poll data suggests there may be something to that. Women are about ten percent more likely to favor allowing gays to marry than men. In Benton County, government by girls has struck again.

Linda Modrell, chairwoman of the Benton County Board of Commissioners, said Tuesday's vote came after a 21/2-hour meeting in which both sides of the debate were well represented, and it came against the advice of the board's attorney. She said commissioners read legal opinions from Vance Croney, Benton County counsel; Multnomah County; the legislative counsel's office; and Attorney General Hardy Myers, all of whom said the state law probably is unconstitutional.

Modrell said that although she went into the meeting thinking the county should wait until a definitive decision from the Oregon Supreme Court, compelling testimony changed her mind.

"If it's unconstitutional a month from now, it's unconstitutional today," she said. "That coupled with the example of Japanese Americans returning from World War II who were not allowed to own property. We don't need to wait to decide that kind of thing was wrong."

The two women on the commission voted to allow gays to marry. The man was opposed.

Croney said he advised the Benton County board that state law prohibits same-sex marriage. Although the law has not been ruled unconstitutional, Croney said he told the board that it probably would be overturned if challenged.

"This is one of those issues where half the people are going to be displeased and that somebody would file some kind of a lawsuit regardless of where they stood on the issue," Croney said. "I think the board made a well-informed decision, and as their attorney, I will back them."

But Jay Dixon, the commissioner who voted against the decision, told The Associated Press that he thought the county was moving too quickly even though he expects the Supreme Court to eventually allow same-sex marriages.

. . .County officials said they would begin issuing the licenses at 9 a.m. March 24.

Currently, Oregon is the only state in which gay marriages are occurring. Massachusett's will go down in history as the first state where a legal opinion held gays have the right to marry under a state constitution. However, the plan was for those marriages to begin May 17. Now that the legislature has passed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages, when or whether gay marriage will occur there is quite murky. The earliest Massachusetts' voters can vote on the issue is 2006. California's courts will likely rule on the issue before Massachusett's election. In the meantime, its Supreme Court ordered San Francisco to stop issuing marriage licenses to homosexuals last week. The status of those already married will remain unclear until the high court rules on the merits of gay marriage. Oregon, whose courts have often led the nation in matters of human rights since the California courts ceded that role to them in the 1970s, may again wear the mantle of leadership as a result of the issue ripening much more quickly than anyone expected.

5:45 AM