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Gay marriage issue in court again
9/25/2005, 12:42 p.m. PT
By CHARLES E. BEGGS
The Associated Press
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Both sides in the state's gay marriage squabble will be back in court Monday, this time to argue about whether voters passed a valid ban on same-sex marriage last year.
Marion County Circuit Judge Joseph Guimond is to hear arguments in a lawsuit challenging a state constitutional amendment approved by voters in November.
The measure's backers say it is a straightforward, one-sentence change that simply says the only valid marriage recognized by state or local governments in Oregon is one between a man and a woman.
But Basic Rights Oregon, the state's main gay rights organization, contends the measure affects multiple rights and violates the constitution's restrictions on rolling too many changes into one ballot measure.
The initiative measure grew from a decision by Multnomah County commissioners to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in March 2004.
More than 3,000 licenses were granted before Multnomah County Circuit Judge Frank Bearden halted the practice, while at the same time ruling that licenses issued up to that point were legally valid.
The state Supreme Court in April reversed the lower court on grounds that the county didn't have any authority to issue the licenses.
Meanwhile, foes of the county's action formed the Defense of Marriage Coalition last year and easily collected enough petition signatures to put the gay marriage ban on the fall ballot.
The broad legal dispute about gay marriage isn't on trial, only whether Measure 36 should be struck down on technical grounds.
Basic Rights Oregon says it expects the litigation will last at least two years and end up before the state Supreme Court.
The organization claims the brief ballot measure actually makes several constitutional changes that are not closely related and under constitutional requirements, should have been voted on as separate amendments.
The state Supreme Court in recent years has strictly interpreted that multiple-amendment restriction in overturning several initiative measures passed by voters.
Foes of the anti-gay marriage amendment argue that it made several changes to the constitution by affecting, for example, provisions on equal protection, religious freedom and local governments' home rule powers.
The Defense of Marriage Coalition says the brief ballot measure did only one thing — made clear that laws can constitutionally limit marriage to opposite-sex couples.
Similar measures banning gay marriage have passed in other states "and ours was probably simpler and clearer than the majority of others," said Tim Nashif, political director of the Oregon Family Council, which formed the Defense of Marriage Coalition.
"It appears they're searching for a judge who will overturn the measure for them," he said.
Whatever the fate of the ballot measure, it won't end the effort to grant gay couples most if not all of the benefits of marriage.
The Democrat-run state Senate passed a bill this year to create legal civil unions giving same-sex couples many of the rights of marriage. The measure died in the Republican-controlled House.
Rebekah Kassell, Basic Rights spokeswoman, said the group likely will decide soon whether to try to put a measure on the November 2006 ballot to create civil unions.