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Local couples join marriage suit.

Byline: Randi Bjornstad The Register-Guard

Three same-sex couples who live or work in Lane County have joined six others statewide to challenge Oregon law that prohibits them from marrying.

The couples - four women and two men - became plaintiffs in a suit filed Wednesday in Multnomah County by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Polly Nelson, education director of the Oregon ACLU, said opponents and proponents of same-sex marriage have agreed to consolidate into one proceeding those lawsuits already filed, in order to quickly resolve the issue in court.

Despite their differences, people on both sides want a judicial decision as soon as possible, Nelson said.

State marriage-license law now refers to applicants as "husband and wife," which historically has been defined as a man and a woman. But proponents of same-sex marriage contend that the law violates the state constitution, which bars withholding from one group of citizens privileges and benefits conferred upon another group.

State Attorney General Hardy Myers has issued an opinion that the state Supreme Court "most likely" would find unconstitutional Oregon's law barring on same-sex marriage. The suit will be heard first in Multnomah County Circuit Court, then in the state Court of Appeals and probably will move to the state Supreme Court.

Gay and lesbian marriage has been a hot topic in Oregon since March 3, when Multnomah County began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. County commissioners in Benton County voted last week to follow Multnomah's lead but rescinded the decision this week, deciding instead to stop issuing all marriage licenses - to homosexual or heterosexual couples - until a court decides the matter.

Lane County's commissioners have declined to change the county's practice of issuing marriage licenses only to heterosexual couples, pending a decision by the courts.

Arguments in the consolidated case may be heard by Judge Frank Bearden in Multnomah County as soon as mid-April.

Dominick Vetri, a law professor at the University of Oregon, and his partner, fitness trainer Douglas DeWitt, have been together for more than 26 years. They are one of the couples named in the ACLU complaint.

They want the right to marry for practical and emotional reasons, DeWitt said.

"We're tired of filing separate tax returns and having to cover the legal bases of what would happen in case of illness or death," DeWitt said. "We want to be part of the process of being open and public about our relationship and helping to change people's minds."

Society views marriage as proof that a couple has a loving and committed relationship, and that bond shouldn't be denied to same-sex couples, Vetri said.

"The founding document of this country contains the ideal that (everyone) is created equal, and when called upon, Americans always have stepped up to support that ideal," Vetri said.

Changing ideas about equal rights led to outlawing of slavery, voting rights for women, allowing interracial marriage and racial desegregation, "and now it's the turn for gay and lesbian couples" to receive equal rights, he said.

The other local couples participating in the ACLU suit include Sally Sheklow and Enid Lefton, a couple for 16 years, and Nina Korican and Irene Farrera, together for 12 years.
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Title Annotation:Courts; The ACLU is leading a consolidated challenge to state law
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 25, 2004
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