Commissioners on 'right side of history' in gay marriage fight

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Anna Rigles and her wife, Sarah, hold hands with their 4-year-old twins, Tristan and Liam,  after getting married Monday afternoon at the Melody Ballroom. The Rigles bought their wedding dresses early in the day and had them altered by 2 p.m. in time to get married.As jubilant same-sex marriage supporters gathered Monday at Portland’s Melody Ballroom to savor a big court victory, standing in the shadows were four former county commissioners who thrust the issue into the public limelight here a decade ago.

With little advance notice and no public hearings or public vote, former Multnomah County Chair Diane Linn and three colleagues agreed to allow Oregon’s first same-sex marriages in March 2004. More than 3,000 gay and lesbian couples tied the knot, only to have the marriages nullified when voters approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage that November.

Linn and her three female colleagues took a lot of heat for their 2004 actions. Some even blamed them for causing a voter backlash that resulted in the constitutional amendment.

After U.S. District Judge Michael McShane overturned the constitutional amendment Monday, the four women showed up at the Melody Ballroom — spontaneously, without consulting one another. Each seems to savor the role she played in the long march for marriage equality in Oregon.

“It takes bold decisions along the way, in any movement, to open peoples’ eyes about what is possible in the world,” says Linn, reflecting on the series of events in 2004. “I think what we did 10 years ago was part of it, and it’s come full circle.”

“It is long overdue that all Oregonians will be able to marry the person they love,” says Serena Cruz Walsh, one of the former county commissioners. “The public had to move to where the rights are, and the public has moved. I’m glad for our small part.”

In 2004, as Linn reflected on the history of the movements for women’s suffrage, civil rights and abortion rights, she knew there would be steps forward and backward. She concluded that the public in Oregon needed some consciousness-raising before a majority would accept gay marriage.

Linn says she wanted to get the faces of those 3,000 lesbian and gay couples, along with their children, in front of the public, to help change public opinion.

“Leadership in itself is a practice of making people uncomfortable,” Linn says. “And, boy, did I experience that.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Federal lawsuit plaintiffs Deanna Geiger and her partner Janine Nelson hugged their lawyer Monday morning while waiting for a marriage license in Multnomah County. A U.S. District Court judge struck down Oregons ban on same-sex marriage in a 26-page ruling at about noon Monday.

The impending challenge

The ground was laid in November 2003, when Massachusetts’ highest court ruled that state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Two months later, in January 2004, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon teamed with gay rights group Basic Rights Oregon, asking Multnomah County commissioners to review the same-sex-marriage ban here in light of the Massachusetts ruling.

Then-county Commissioner Lisa Naito, a lawyer, says she always believed the 14th Amendment equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution — which formed the basis of McShane’s decision — meant same-sex couples should have equal rights to marry. After the ACLU and Basic Rights approached the county, Naito and fellow Commissioner Walsh sought a legal opinion from county attorney Agnes Sowles.

Sowles issued an opinion that Oregon’s Constitution prohibits discrimination against same-sex couples. “It was interpreting the Constitution, and we took an oath to follow the Constitution,” Naito says.

Linn, the county chief executive, decided it would be an appropriate administrative decision to sanction same-sex marriages — without taking a vote, based on that legal advice.

Naito, Cruz and Commissioner Maria de Rojo Steffey were in on the move and concurred. The fifth commissioner, conservative Lonnie Roberts, was kept in the dark until the eleventh hour.

They moved fast, deliberately trying to put the new policy into effect so that couples

could marry before a court would intervene.

“We knew it would be overturned,” Linn says. “We knew it before we made the decision.”

She also knew the quick process would provoke a strong reaction from the public. Even the editor of the gay newspaper, Just Out, complained about the lack of a public process.

“I was terrified of it back then, in so many ways,” Linn says. “I knew it was a decision ahead of its time. I also knew we were on the right side of history.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Ben West and his partner Paul Rummell kiss after celebrating Judge McShanes ruling Monday afternoon. West and Rummell were two plaintiffs in one of the federal lawsuits that overturned the states ban on same-sex marriage.

Tarnished victory

Naito acknowledges that the county decision helped galvanize signature-gathering for the constitutional amendment, then called Measure 36. But she and the other commissioners bristle at the notion that they caused that amendment to come forth or to pass at the ballot box.

Oregon Family Council already had begun planning a November ballot initiative, in light of the events in Massachusetts and elsewhere. And, as came to light later, President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, had plotted with various conservative groups to qualify several similar ballot measures on many state ballots that same month, to boost voter turnout among social conservatives to aid Bush’s re-election.

Tim Nashif, the former political director of Oregon Family Council who led the successful 2004 constitutional amendment campaign, lamented Monday that the preference of hundreds of thousands of Oregon voters was nullified by one gay judge’s decision.

Nashif acknowledged that the pending initiative to reverse the 2004 constitutional amendment, sponsored by Oregon United for Marriage, was leading in polls. But he says some people who oppose gay marriage are bashful about admitting it to pollsters.

“I think voters have shifted, but we don’t know whether they’ve shifted beyond 50-50,” Nashif says.

Supporters of gay marriage should have gone back to the ballot box instead of relying on a sympathetic judge who refused to allow critics to intervene in the lawsuit before him, Nashif says. “There’s a fair way to have it done; this is not it.”

He predicts that the lack of a public vote will tarnish the victory of gay-rights supporters.

Naito says a question of basic constitutional rights shouldn’t be left to a public vote. “I’ve always believed that a constitutional right of equality, of equal protection, is not really subject to a vote,” Naito says. “It’s not a majority-vote decision.”

Linn concurs.

Ironically, political unity among the four women commissioners dissolved later in their terms, which were marked by internal bickering. Linn didn’t want to talk about that past on Monday, saying “there’s a lot of water under the bridge.”

For now, she says, “we’re all just celebrating.”

Happily ever after may depend on U.S. Supreme Court

Julie Englebloom and Laurie Brown of Portland exchanged vows shortly after obtaining their marriage license from Multnomah County Monday. Dressed in white, they were married in a ceremony at the Melody Ballroom in Southeast Portland, which had been reserved by same-sex marriage supporters. It was decorated for traditional wedding ceremonies in rooms on both the first and second floors.

"It's surreal. I just didn't think we'd ever be able to do this," Englebloom said shortly after being pronounced "married for life."

Brown and Englebloom had been together for 10 years, but they always worried that their relationship might not be recognized at a hospital or by the government.

"There's always been a little uncertainty, but now our love for one another has been affirmed by the community," Brown told a line of reporters and photographers who rushed up to them after the ceremony.

After U.S. District Court Judge Michael McShane issued his ruling Monday stating that Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, Oregon United for Marriage leaders said they will not put an initiative to repeal the 2004 state ban on Oregon’s November ballot.

That decision came on the heels of a related decision by Friends of Religious Freedom to drop its proposed Oregon ballot measure that would grant a religious exemption to Oregon’s civil rights laws for service providers who choose not to cater, provide flowers or other services for same-sex weddings or commitment ceremonies. The group decided the ballot wording approved by the Oregon Supreme Court would make it hard to pass the measure.

Two months ago, Oregonians were bracing for a major clash in the fall campaign over the two competing measures, which figured to bring a surge of social conservatives and gay-rights supporters to the polls. Now neither will appear on the ballot.

“I don’t see anything being on the ballot in November as far as marriage, at this point,” said Theresa Harke, spokeswoman for Oregon Family Council. That group led the campaign for the 2004 constitutional amendment that was overturned Monday, and was pressing for the religious exemption.

Oregon United for Marriage says it collected around 160,000 signatures on its petition to reverse the constitutional ban, well more than the 116,285 required to make the ballot. Recent polls showed 55 percent or more Oregonians now support same-sex marriage.

Initiative committee leaders decided the court ruling settled the issue, so there’s no need for a public vote.

The committee raised more than $640,000 in cash and in-kind contributions to collect the signatures. It still has approximately $27,000 in the bank that could be distributed to other causes — including Democratic candidates — in the general election.

Though public opinion on same-sex marriage has dramatically changed in Oregon and much of the nation, the issue might not be settled until there’s a definitive ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

As recently as 1986, McShane wrote in his 26-page decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Georgia law making criminal sexual acts between consenting gay men and lesbian women on the basis of “a millennia of moral teaching.” The court didn’t reverse that decision until 2002.

“It is not surprising then that many of us raised with such a world view would wish to

protect our beliefs and our families by turning to the ballot box to enshrine in law those traditions we have come to value,” McShane wrote.

“But just as the Constitution protects the expression of these moral viewpoints, it equally protects the minority from being diminished by them.”

McShane said Oregon's ban on same-sex marriage did not afford protection to children, who are already eligible to be adopted by same-sex couples.

Although no one at present has standing to appeal McShane's ruling, one or more of the similar rulings in other states is likely to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last year, the high court let stand a decision by the California Supreme Court to overturn that state's ban on same-sex marriages, but on the basis that the case was not properly before the court. The high court, in a separate case, also overturned a section of a 1996 federal law that denied federal benefits to same-sex couples.

The court itself has not ruled on same-sex marriage.

Reporters Peter Wong and Steve Law also contributed to this story.

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