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Lane County steers clear of gay marriage - for now.

Byline: Randi Bjornstad The Register-Guard

For the time being at least, Lane County's gay and lesbian couples will have to travel to Portland or San Francisco if they want to get married.

They won't be able to get marriage licenses at 125 E. Eighth Ave., Eugene - the Lane County Public Service Building.

Lane County officials said Wednesday that they will not follow Multnomah County's sudden move on Tuesday to begin offering marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

In a midafternoon news conference, Lane County Commissioner Peter Sorenson said he and county records chief Annette Newingham both have requested a legal opinion from the county attorney's office on the right of homosexuals to marry under Oregon's constitution and statutes.

The county will make no decision until the legal issues are sorted out, Sorenson said.

If the legal opinion comes back clearly upholding the legal rights of same-sex couples to marry, the county would be bound to uphold the law and could begin issuing the licenses, Newingham said.

If not, the county could choose not to change its existing stance of not granting same-sex marriages, and any change would have to be made by the board of commissioners, she said.

The county's wait-and-see attitude disappointed some, including Pam Simon and Sydney Ashland, a lesbian couple from Eugene.

"We actually came in and filled out the application on the off-chance that they would have good news for us," Ashland said. "In every way, we act as a married couple and a family."

Simon said the couple has an appointment at 9 a.m. on March 23 to be married in San Francisco, "but we would much rather do it in our own county. This is terribly frustrating and disappointing."

The county has a standing legal opinion - issued in 1992 - that limits marriage to heterosexual couples, Sorenson said, "but we're asking our legal counsel to update that opinion," based on subsequent laws and court rulings.

In addition, state Attorney General Hardy Myers intends to issue an opinion, and the Multnomah County decision no doubt will be subject to legal challenges that will end up before the state Supreme Court, he said.

The state constitution provides that no citizen or group of citizens shall receive privileges denied to others, which could be construed to support same-sex marriage, Sorenson said. State law defines marriage as a civil contract available to males and females ages 17 years and older - although the law doesn't spell out that men must marry women and women must marry men; a separate legal clause refers to joining people named in the legally required marriage license "as husband and wife."

The rights of same-sex couples in Oregon won support in a 1998 decision by a state appeals court, which said medical and other benefits could not be denied to domestic partners of homosexual employees if granted to spouses of married employees.

The sudden furor in Portland took some in Lane County by surprise.

Rev. Dan Bryant of Eugene's First Christian Church said the Multnomah County decision emerged without public dialogue.

"I don't know what the churches will do with this," Bryant said. However, if a same-sex couple in his congregation gets a marriage license issued by an Oregon county, "I will marry them," he said. "I'm very supportive of gay rights - but I realize that marriage is a very emotional issue for most people."

Nationally, the gay marriage is becoming an election issue, and that could be true locally for the three Lane County commissioner seats up for grabs.

The east Lane County seat currently held by Don Hampton, who won appointment to the vacant seat in October, has attracted a slew of candidates.

Hampton reacted cautiously Wednesday to the same-sex marriage issue, calling the matter "a social issue that will work its way through the legal system, and that will settle the question."

"I'm sure we will follow the advice of our legal counsel," said Hampton, who is running to keep his seat.

His challengers offered varied opinions.

Creswell attorney Martha Roberts said she's "totally in support" of gay marriage but believes the county should have a task force to involve the public in making the decision.

"I think homosexuals have the right to be recognized as a union, with all the benefits marriage confers," Roberts said. "They want to be recognized as a unit - they want to be accepted as a family."

Mark Herbert, who lives in the Mohawk Valley between Springfield and Marcola, said he supports allowing same-sex couples to marry, but that as a county commissioner, his responsibility would be to represent his constituents.

"It wasn't that long ago that marriage between different races was illegal, and it was also a crime to cohabitate without marriage," Herbert said. "Society evolves, and ideas change. If two people are in a relationship and care about each other, their relationship should be recognized."

Retired dentist Cedric Hayden of Fall Creek disagreed.

"If the issue came before the board of commissioners and I were a seated commissioner, I would oppose it," said Hayden, a candidate for the east Lane seat.

Another candidate, Faye Stewart of Cottage Grove, declined to discuss the issue.

"The governor made a statement, and the attorney general plans to issue an opinion. At this point, I'll leave it in their hands," Stewart said.

However, everyone's opinions may be just that, Sorenson said.

"This will all end up at the Supreme Court," he predicted.
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Title Annotation:Family; Before taking any action, officials ask the attorney's office to draw up a legal opinion on the issue
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 4, 2004
Next Article:Same-sex couples line up to get hitched in Portland.

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