The Oregon Supreme Court on Thursday voided nearly 3,000 marriage licenses issued to gay and lesbian couples last year in Multnomah County, ruling that a single county did not have the authority to act on a statewide issue.
The court noted that Oregonians last November had passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a heterosexual institution. Oregon was one of 11 states to adopt such an amendment.
Conservative groups said the court ruling on top of the voter-approved amendment once and for all resolved the issue of same-sex marriage in the state.
"It's over and done," said Tim Nashif, director of the Defense of Marriage Coalition. "Marriage has been protected in Oregon."
But gay and lesbian groups say the fight is not over. They promise to explore other legal and legislative avenues, including the legalization of same-sex civil unions.
Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski, anticipating the court ruling, introduced legislation Wednesday that would allow such unions and would outlaw discrimination against gays and lesbians. But even advocates say it could take months or years for the legislation to become law.
States have addressed the issue in different ways -- some to block the unions and some to allow them.
Vermont offers civil unions to gays, and Connecticut is expected to follow suit soon. Legal recognition of such unions would ascribe most rights and benefits of marriage to committed same-sex partners. Massachusetts is the only state that allows same-sex marriages.
President Bush supports amending the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriages.
In Portland, Thursday's court ruling hit home for the couples involved. "In my mind and heart, we are still married," said Warren Clement, 62, referring to his partner, Scott Clift, 65. Portlanders and partners for nearly 29 years, Clement and Clift were among those who obtained marriage licenses and married en masse last year in Multnomah County.
The county encompasses the state's most populous region, including Greater Portland, and is known as a liberal-leaning pocket. Early last spring, county officials decided the state's constitution prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and began issuing licenses to same-sex couples. Soon there were long lines of people applying for licenses.
The Oregon marriages became part of a flurry of same-sex weddings across the nation -- in San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Massachusetts -- in the spring of 2004. Clement and Clift exchanged vows in one of Portland's civic auditoriums, along with hundreds of gay and lesbian couples that day. The couple celebrated their one-year anniversary March 3.
"The fact that we have a marriage certificate on our living room wall is for me a great source of pride, and I'm not tearing it down," said Clift. "If they want it down, they'll have to break into our house and take it down."
The mass weddings in Portland and elsewhere triggered a backlash, and opponents of same-sex marriage began a series of legal challenges.
Last April, Multnomah County Circuit Judge Frank Bearden ruled that restricting marriage to heterosexual couples constituted discrimination against gays, but he also ordered the county to stop issuing licenses until the Legislature or the courts decided the issue.
Thursday's ruling by Oregon's high court brought a mix of reactions.
Portland Mayor Tom Potter said in a statement that it was "a sad day" for Oregonians and all Americans. "I am especially saddened for my daughter, Katie," he said. "As a Portland police officer, she has put her life on the line to protect our community. Katie and her partner, Pam, married last March, with their two little girls watching. Now, I wonder, who will protect Katie and her family?"
John Belgarde, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Oregon, said he was pleased by the ruling and said he had predicted it.
"We felt all along it was going to go our way," Belgarde said. "It was really a no-brainer."
The group is suing Multnomah County commissioners for spending taxpayer money on the issue of marriage licenses for gays. "Part of the job of the Christian Coalition is to hold officials accountable to the people who elected them."
Mary Li, 41, and her partner, Rebecca Kennedy, 44, were among the first gay Oregonians to marry last spring. Their wedding ceremony, at the Hilton in downtown Portland, was covered by local media. Although discouraged by Thursday's ruling, Li said it only affected the legal aspect of their partnership.
"It has nothing to do with us as a couple, as a family," she said. "We'll continue to be a couple."
Li works with Basic Rights Oregon, a gay advocacy group at the forefront of the marriage issue. She said the group's lawyers would study the ruling before deciding on a new strategy.
The state attorney general's office said in a statement that the ruling did not address the issue of civil unions and appeared to leave the door open for legislators to decide.
"That issue still needs to be resolved, either through the courts or the Legislature," said Kevin Neely, spokesman for the attorney general. "The battle will still rage."
Meanwhile, conservative groups are bracing for a continued fight.
"Same-sex civil unions are gay marriage by another name, and they are just as wrong and just as dangerous," said Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute, which is affiliated with Concerned Women for America, a conservative public-policy organization in Washington, D.C.
Such unions would "put the government's stamp of approval on homosexuality," Knight said. "It will then be imposed on everyone ... and we will oppose it."