Gays Travel Long Road for Legal Unions

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Byline: Christian Hill The Register-Guard

Joanne Fletcher and Linda Leanne aren't waiting for the outcome as supporters and opponents prepare for another political battle that's likely to occur next year over gay marriage in Oregon.

On Monday morning, the Eugene couple will board an Amtrak train to head north and get married for the second time in a decade. It will be the 18th anniversary of their "joining" ceremony in Eugene, when they committed to each other in front of family and friends.

Their journey won't end at the county building in downtown Portland, as it did on March 3, 2004, when long lines and boisterous crowds greeted them as Multnomah County began issuing marriage licenses, which were later nullified, to gay couples. This time around, it will conclude in downtown Vancouver, Wash., where the couple will exchange vows and rings in the seventh state to legally recognize same-sex marriage.

"We can't wait," said Fletcher, 53, a case manager for Lane County Developmental Disability Services. "We have this opportunity, and we're not going to pass this up."

One-hundred-fifty gay couples from Oregon have traveled to the Evergreen State to get married in the first three months after county auditors began issuing marriage licenses on Dec. 6, 2012, according to statistics from the Washington State Department of Health.

These out-of-state trips occur as supporters are mobilizing to repeal the ban on gay marriage that Oregon voters approved in 2004 with 57 percent of the statewide vote. The Oregon Says I Do campaign has gathered nearly 90,000 signatures toward qualifying the measure on the November 2014 ballot, spokeswoman Amy Ruiz said. The campaign needs to collect at least 116,284 valid signatures of registered voters to do so.

"We are confident that we will reach our target," Ruiz said.

A representative of the Oregon Family Council, which spearheaded the 2004 measure, didn't return a phone message seeking comment. The group has pledged to work to preserve the amendment to the state Constitution that defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

Even as more states allow gay marriage, pollster Tim Hibbitts said the repeal of the constitutional amendment in Oregon is not a "slam dunk at all." (On Friday, a New Jersey judge ruled that state must allow same-sex couples to marry, but Gov. Chris Christie vowed to appeal.)

Voters in three traditionally "blue" states - Maine, Maryland and Washington - approved gay marriage in November, Hibbitts said, but they did so by slim margins during a presidential election when turnout is higher.

Next year's general election, featuring the governor's race, will draw older, more conservative voters, Hibbitts said. And he doubts voters will "take their cues" from politicians and judges in other states.

"At this point, I think it might be a relatively competitive election," said Hibbitts, who added his Portland-based polling firm, DHM Research, has had no involvement with either campaign.

The passage of the constitutional amendment, known as Measure 36, dispirited Fletcher and Leanne, but what arrived in the mail months later was even worse in their eyes. The Oregon Supreme Court had ruled in April 2005 that Multnomah County had overstepped its authority in issuing the marriage licenses and voided licenses granted to the Eugene residents and more than 3,000 other same-sex couples.

Shortly after, Fletcher and Leanne received a letter announcing the decision. Included was a $60 check, a refund of the marriage license fee. The certificate that symbolized their love and deepest commitment might as well have been blank.

It was emotionally devastating to both of them. They destroyed the letter and donated the money to a support group for gay teenagers. Leanne said the letter amounted to a divorce decree that neither partner wanted and was thrust upon them by the government. …