Only five days earlier, four out of the five commissioners hosted a press conference to announce the surprising news that the county would begin to hand out marriage licenses to same-sex couples. At the time, nearly every news organization in town crammed into a conference room to hear the brief legal explanation for the decision. Meanwhile, standing outside in the cold drizzle, more than 100 couples lined up, waiting for the doors to finally open so they could pick up their marriage licenses. Nearby, a few protesters yelled about God's plan.
But less than a week after this groundbreaking news, the sight of same-sex couples lined up around the Multnomah County building on SE Hawthorne has become a familiar scene. County commissioner Cruz steps outside onto the pavilion and begins to congratulate couples. It is unseasonably warm and the mood is happy, but no longer overtly festive.
There is only one TV camera there, and an OPB reporter lurks around. There are no longer any protesters; but as a reminder of the controversy, a county sheriff shadows Cruz as she greets couples. Dressed in dark green, he stands sternly a few feet away from her. But as one elderly couple leans forward to thank Cruz, the sheriff shows a small smile. Just as quickly, when someone steps between him and the commissioner, he pushes the person aside. "I need to keep a clear line to the representative," he says forcefully.
Over the past week, the normally staid county building has become an epicenter for a civil rights movement. As this is uncharted territory, every word and legal action by each side has been carefully documented. To a large extent, the path that events follow over the next several weeks will determine the direction of civil rights for the gay-lesbian-bi-trans community for upcoming years.
With the exception of a few Bible-thumping protesters quoting chapter and verse, so far the controversy has not focused on the morality of same-sex marriages--but rather on the process by which the policy decision came about. Detractors have complained that Linn and Cruz were sneaky about the policy change. While four of the five commissioners were informed and consulted, a fifth, Lonnie Roberts, was not.
Lars Larson, KXL's rabidly conservative talk show host, has led the chorus of complaints against the policy change. At Wednesday's press conference, he was the first to begin the Q&A. Shouting above the crowd, he insisted that it was illegal to exclude Roberts from the vote, claiming it violated so-called "open door" requirements and went against basic democracy.
The Oregonian has also been particularly virulent, using the decision-making process as the subject for a number of shortsighted editorials.
But as of this week, those concerns have been largely resolved. Both Linn and Cruz have detailed the process by which the policy change came about. It seems as if the ball started rolling as early as January, when Basic Rights Oregon (BRO), a local gay rights organization, approached the commissioners. (It's interesting to note that this came weeks before San Francisco began handing out same-sex marriage licenses.)
Roey Thorpe, the executive director for BRO, informed the commissioners that refusing licenses to same-sex couples violated the state constitution's equal protection clause. It was a checkmate move: BRO asked Linn to have the county's attorney re-examine the marriage policy or to face lawsuits from same-sex couples demanding licenses and rights.
In turn, Linn asked the county's attorney to look over the constitution. The attorney reported back that, yes, the state constitution demands that both straight and gay couples are allowed the right to obtain a license. That opinion was seconded by Stoel Rives, a highly regarded west coast law firm.
On Monday, a Multnomah County judge further quelled legal controversies when he dismissed a request for a restraining order. In response to the policy change, a hastily organized group calling itself the "Defense of Marriage Coalition" filed a restraining order to stop any further marriages. Late Monday afternoon, in front of a packed courtroom, Kelly Clark, an attorney for the Marriage Coalition, desperately tried to argue that the policy change violated 150 years of history. He insisted that the clear intent of the law is only to allow marriage between men and women. When Judge Dale Koch asked what harm Clark's clients had suffered from the nearly 1600 licenses already granted, Clark was unable to articulate anything intelligible. Judge Koch then rhetorically asked how there would be any further harm if more licenses were issued. The restraining order was soundly dismissed.
But the legal and moral wrangling is far from over. For Tuesday's county commission meeting, Roberts promised that he would propose an amendment to the county charter that would allow marriage licenses only for heterosexual couples. In advance of the vote, commissioner Lisa Naito called the proposal "worthless," saying that the state constitution would trump it, even if the proposal somehow reached the ballot. (The meeting happened after presstime.)
Three ballot initiatives also are scrambling to gather enough signatures to qualify for November's ballot. One, oddly, proclaims that marriage should only be between a man and a woman "for the purpose of procreation." Those initiatives have a nearly impossibly short period of time to collect the requisite 100,000 signatures.
The changes in Multnomah County also seem to be leading the way for other municipalities. On Monday, Seattle's mayor Greg Nickels signed an executive order for the city to recognize same-sex marriages conducted elsewhere. That decision provides benefits and recognition to same-sex couples in Seattle. But because the state of Washington has outlawed same-sex marriages, Nickels cannot hand out licenses.
Mayor Vera Katz also, after weeks of silence, issued a statement proclaiming her support. But such congratulations do not go far enough. The city has a responsibility to carry forward the momentum started by the county's policy change. The Mercury urges the city to consider an Equal Benefits Ordinance, which would only allow the city to contract with businesses that provide benefits to same-sex couples.
The Attorney General of Oregon is expected to announce its interpretation of the state's constitution as it applies to marriages any day now. That opinion, not available at press time, will set the tone for other counties in the state.