Same-Sex Couples Marry in Oregon as Clash Widens

The national debate over same-sex marriage erupted from coast to coast Wednesday, as exuberant gay and lesbian couples braved rain and wind to exchange wedding vows in Portland, while the mayors of two New York towns vowed to defy a state attorney general's warning that such marriages are illegal.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee predicted that gay marriages would spread through all 50 states unless Congress approved a constitutional amendment banning such unions.

"It is becoming increasingly clear that Congress must act," Frist said, noting that the Senate would vote this year on such an amendment. "We are gambling with our future if we allow activist judges to redefine marriage for our whole society."

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday passed resolutions opposing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages.

The supervisors voted 3-2 in favor of a resolution by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; voting against the resolution were Supervisors Don Knabe and Michael Antonovich. The City Council voted 14-0 in favor of a resolution introduced by Eric Garcetti, Tom LaBonge and Jack Weiss.

Oregon and New York are among 12 states whose laws do not specifically address the issue of same-sex marriage. Thirty-eight states ban the practice outright, but four of them -- California, New Jersey, Vermont and Hawaii -- offer limited privileges to same-sex couples. Only Massachusetts law allows specifically for gay marriages, beginning May 17. Lawmakers in that state will meet next week to consider amending the state constitution in order to ban such unions.

Clashes over same-sex unions have varied from state to state: In New Mexico, a county clerk issued wedding licenses to 26 couples before she was blocked by the state attorney general. In Georgia, black legislators have stalled an effort by other lawmakers to halt gay marriages by passing a state constitutional amendment.

The volatile issue surfaced Wednesday in Portland, where Multnomah County Chairwoman Diane Linn ordered clerks to issue wedding licenses to same-sex couples. Linn said she took the action after a county attorney determined that restricting marriage to the union of a man and a woman discriminated against gay and lesbian couples and violated the state constitution.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat, said he favored civil unions but questioned the legality of the decision to issue marriage licenses in Multnomah County, one of the state's most liberal and populous areas.

"Reasonable people can differ," he said, "but I think when you read it [the state marriage statute] at the time in history when the statute was written, I think it is clear they were thinking about a man and a woman getting married," the governor said in a statement.

Kulongoski added that it would be up to state Atty. Gen. Hardy Meyers to decide what, if any, enforcement action to take against Multnomah County. A spokesman for Meyers said he expected to issue an opinion in a few days.

As word of Linn's decision spread Tuesday night, hundreds of couples started lining up at the county courthouse, huddling under umbrellas. They poured into the building when it opened Wednesday morning. Hours later, Oregon had its first two same-sex wedded couples.

Mary Li, 40, a county employee, and Rebecca Kennedy, 43, a self-described stay-at-home mom, were the first to exchange vows.

"We are here today to witness the marriage of Becky and Mary," said retired Oregon Supreme Court Justice Betty Roberts, who conducted the ceremony. Kennedy's 9-month-old daughter, Ava, was cradled in a friend's arms nearby as the celebration unfolded.

"I'm beyond excited," said Li, adding that the couple had been together for four years. "I'm nervous too. When you're a couple, you have dreams of getting a house and building a life with your family. It started today. It's a great day."

Stephen Knox, 43, and Eric Warshaw, 40, were next to exchange vows. The Portland-area doctors said they had been together for 10 years. Their three adopted children, ages 3 to 5, attended the ceremony.

"As a child, I always thought I was going to be married, but as I grew up society told me I couldn't," Knox said. "Obviously I can. Eric and I already felt married, but now we have the paper."

Roey Thorpe, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, a gay advocacy group, predicted there would be hundreds of same-sex marriage ceremonies in Portland over the next few days. Previously, the county had allowed gay and lesbians only to register as domestic partners.

"Remember, some of these couples have been waiting years for this," Thorpe said.

Between 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, the county issued 290 marriage licenses. Many of the couples who had waited in line at the courthouse then traveled across the Willamette River to Keller Auditorium, the city's performing arts center, where clergy performed their ceremonies.

The line to get inside the auditorium wound around the block. Once a couple made it through the door, they were asked a few brief questions and had to fill out a form before being led to the officiant of their choice for a 10- to 20-minute ceremony.

By 4 p.m., organizers said, the number of couples married in the building had reached well above 200.

Samantha and Reyanna Stephens of Portland held back tears for much of their ceremony, then broke down immediately afterward. Both are students at Portland Community College. They wore white robes, and Samantha, 31, carried a bouquet of roses. Friends took pictures.

"We love each other so much, and we've wanted to do this for so long," said Reyanna, 32.

Reaction was swift.

Lou Beres, chairman of the Oregon Christian Coalition, which long has opposed gay marriage, said the county's decision "makes a mockery of thousands of years of traditional behavior" and threatens "to usher in an era of perversion."

"We are facing the most well-funded, well-connected and well-organized attack on our fundamental beliefs ever," Beres said in a statement. "The militant homosexual movement is one of the most powerful forces in Oregon. Unless we take a determined stand now, marriage as the union of one man and one woman will be nothing more than a memory."

In New York, the gay marriage controversy surfaced last week when the mayor of New Paltz, a small town 75 miles north of Manhattan, performed 25 same-sex wedding ceremonies and said he had a waiting list of 1,200 couples. Mayor Jason West called it a "civil rights issue," and bitterly criticized state officials' refusal to issue wedding licenses.

Gov. George E. Pataki promptly criticized West's action as illegal and said that if people want to change the law, they should do it through the legislative process.

As pressure mounted on him to take action, state Atty. Gen. Eliot Spitzer issued an opinion stating that New York law defines matrimony as a union between a man and woman.

Speaking before a packed news conference in New York City, Spitzer said he personally supported same-sex marriages, but warned that any New York officials performing such unions could be subject to "severe repercussions." He said such ceremonies were "not proper or legal," but added that the courts ultimately would resolve the constitutionality of any state laws restricting gay marriage.

But West, who has been charged with 19 criminal violations, said he would ignore such warnings.

He pleaded not guilty during a brief court proceeding Wednesday evening, and vowed to continue performing gay marriages this weekend -- even though he could face jail time.

"I don't plan to spend time in jail," West said on NBC's "Today Show."

"I think that the judge before whom this case will be heard will see that the constitution is clear on this, will see that our laws are clear on this and will see that these marriages are in fact legal."

In an act of solidarity, Mayor John Shields of nearby Nyack, N.Y., said he too would perform same-sex marriage ceremonies this week.

Shields said he would be marrying his longtime male companion, and told reporters: "What do you do when you're faced with injustice? What did the women do in the suffrage movement? They marched. They were arrested. They did what they had to do to get their rights."

Tizon reported from Portland, Getlin from New York. Times staff writer Elizabeth Mehren in Boston contributed to this report.