The Oregon Supreme Court today nullified nearly 3,000 marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples by Multnomah County a year ago, saying a single county couldn't take such action on its own.

Share story

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Oregon Supreme Court today nullified nearly 3,000 marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples by Multnomah County a year ago, saying a single county couldn’t take such action on its own.

The court said that, while the county can question the constitutionality of laws governing marriage, they are a matter of statewide concern so the county had no authority to issue licenses to gay couples.

The court noted that last November, Oregonians approved a constitutional amendment that limits marriages to a man and a woman. The court also said state law had already set the same limitation on marriages — a law dating back to the 19th century.

“Today, marriage in Oregon — an institution once limited to opposite-sex couples only by statute — now is so limited by the state Constitution as well,” the court ruling said.

The court left the door open for state legislators to craft an alternative to gay marriages, such as civil unions — even though it did not specifically mention civil unions.

“We conclude that Oregon law currently places the regulation of marriage exclusively within the province of the state’s legislative power,” the court said.

A day earlier, Gov. Ted Kulongoski said he will push for a law allowing gay couples in Oregon to form civil unions that would give them many of the rights available to married couples.

Members of the Legislature have been awaiting the ruling to give them guidance on how to proceed on the issue of same-sex couples.

Legislative leaders were meeting behind closed doors Wednesday to discuss the ruling.

Vermont is the first and still the only state to offer civil unions to gays, passing a law in 2000. Massachusetts has allowed gay marriage since May.

Multnomah County began issuing marriages to gay couples last March, arguing that not doing so violated the state Constitution. A judge halted the practice about six weeks later, but not before nearly 3,000 same-sex couples had wed.

Marte Sheehan, who married Linda Duchek last March, said she was disappointed with the ruling but had hopes the Legislature would pass a bill allowing civil unions.

“I believe that ultimately the Legislature will do the right thing,” she said.

Tim Nashif, head of the Oregon Family Council and the Defense of Marriage Coalition, welcomed the court’s decision.

“We’re pretty thrilled and pretty relieved at the opinion,” Nashif said.

He added that his groups are not opposed to ensuring benefits for gay or lesbian couples, and were only trying to ensure a clear definition of marriage as a social institution.

“It’s not a benefits issue,” Nashif said. “They’re in this fight for another reason.”

Kelly Clark, the attorney for the Defense of Marriage Coalition, said the ruling sends a national message about the authority to grant marriages.

“Two West Coast liberal states now, both California and Oregon, have both said that local governments don’t have authority to take the law into their own hands,” Clark said. “It certainly sends a signal to the rest of the country.”

Kevin Neely, spokesman for state Attorney General Hardy Myers, said the court made it clear it is up to the Legislature to decide on the matter of civil unions for same-sex couples.

“They left that big issue for another day,” Neely said. “I suspect the issue will be resolved by either legislation or by additional litigation.”