On May 19, only minutes after Judge Michael McShane ruled that Oregon’s ban on marriage equality was unconstitutional, Deanna Geiger and Janine Nelson became the state’s first same-sex couple to legally marry.
They exchanged vows in the lobby of Multnomah County’s courthouse, which had announced in advance that they would issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples the moment it was legal. Anticipating a ruling in their favor, couples began lining up hours before the news came at noon that the ban had been struck down.
The ban was voted into law in 2004, with a 57 percent majority in favor of amending the State Constitution to declare marriage as an institution reserved only for heterosexual couples. In a twenty-six-page decision, McShane wrote, “Because Oregon’s marriage laws discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without a rational relationship to any legitimate government interest, the laws violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
The lawsuit against the ban, which was brought by four gay and lesbian couples (including Geiger and Nelson), had ended up in the highly unusual situation of not having anyone to defend the law. Oregon’s attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, announced in February 2014 that she was refusing to defend the state’s ban on marriage equality in court, on the grounds that it “cannot withstand a federal constitutional challenge under any standard of review.” Previously, in 2013, she had signed onto the US Supreme Court briefs that argued in favor of allowing LGBT couples to marry on the grounds that anything less was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
The only group willing to defend Oregon’s ban against marriage equality was the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), and McShane ruled that they did not have the legal standing to do so. An appeals court has already rejected an attempt by NOM to obtain an emergency stay on the judge’s decision.
Oregon has now joined a list of seven other states who have ruled in favor or striking down the marriage equality bans—judges in Idaho, Virginia, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Arkansas have all recently ruled that their same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional. Judges in Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee also ordered the State to recognize out of state same-sex marriages.
The original 2004 ban was put on the ballot a few months after Multnomah County issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples for a brief period, in which over three thousand weddings took place. The Oregon Supreme Court later invalidated the marriages.
According to On Top Mag, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley said in a statement, “Today is a momentous day in Oregon’s fight for equality. Lifetime love and commitment should be celebrated and honored, not relegated to second-class status. Today, Oregon is a better place for all who live here. This ruling will strengthen families and communities and ensure that every Oregonian is treated equally under the law.”
He added, “I extend my heartfelt congratulations to all the Oregon families who will soon be able to celebrate their love and commitment in the state they call home.”