When Multnomah County officials bucked convention in 2004 and began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, Oregon voters fired back, amending the state constitution that year to ban such unions — one of 32 states that have done so.
Now, buoyed by growing support across the country and the sound of wedding bells from neighboring Washington, gay-marriage supporters have filed an initiative to ask voters next year to allow gays and lesbians to wed.
Momentum is on their side after voters for the first time at the ballot box approved gay marriage in Washington, Maryland and Maine, and beat back a constitutional amendment in Minnesota.
Given the narrow passage of the 2004 constitutional ban and the passage of time, “Oregon is one of those places where the chances (for repeal) are pretty good,” said Peter Nicolas, a law professor at the University of Washington.
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From across the Atlantic Ocean and in a number of states, governments and legislatures are advancing measures to legalize same-sex marriage.
President Obama has become a champion, and government policies favoring such unions are increasingly common.
“Everything happening on this issue and driving the conversation are important to continuing the march forward,” said Jeana Frazzini, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon.
The largest gay-rights organization in Oregon, Basic Rights will run the initiative campaign, being called Oregon United for Marriage.
Frazzini said the strong connections that exist between Portland and southwest Washington highlight the current dichotomy.
“On one side of the river, you have families that are fully protected, and on the other you have those in a lesser position who are more vulnerable,” she said. “That’s a contradiction that can’t last.”
If the group is successful, Oregon voters would become the first in the country to reverse themselves on this issue — a tough battle that’s expected to begin in the coming weeks over wording of the ballot language.
Once that’s settled, the group will have until July 2014 to collect 116,000 valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
Teresa Harke, spokeswoman for the Oregon Family Council, which supports the same-sex marriage ban, said her group has been preparing for such an initiative and is gearing up to fight it.
Reversing Oregon ban
Constitutional bans on gay marriage began appearing about a decade ago when, led by San Francisco, several communities on their own issued marriage licenses to gay couples.
In Multnomah County, officials issued nearly 3,000 before a judge ordered the practice stopped; the marriages were later nullified.
In the years that followed, Basic Rights Oregon began setting the stage for a campaign to reverse the ban.
In 2008, with a strong community coalition, it engineered passage in the Oregon Legislature of a domestic-partnership law, as well as a measure expanding anti-discrimination laws to include gay people.
“We picked ourselves up and had our biggest successes in the state Legislature,” Frazzini said.
In 2011, the group launched a campaign to test public sentiment on gay marriage, with the hope of running a ballot measure the following year.
But while some national polls for the first time were showing majority support for gay marriage, Oregonians were deeply divided.
“We heard loud and clear from the community that we needed to continue to lay the ground work, that while there had been tremendous change and shifting in public opinion, it had not reached the point where it was practical,” she said.
Last year, Basic Rights Oregon worked in southwest Washington to help win approval for Referendum 74, the measure that legalized gay marriage here.
Recent polls are more favorable, with 54 percent of Oregon voters indicating support for gay marriage. Add to that the landmark victories of last fall, and, Frazzini said, she’s feeling pretty confident.
“We want to do this once and do it right,” she said. “It’s not the kind of thing where you ‘just give it a shot.’ The price is too high.”
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @turnbull.