Portland's Lifetime Commitment: As Oregon Continues to Allow Gay and Lesbian Couples to Marry, Some Are Describing the Pacific Northwest State as the New Ground Zero for Marriage Equality

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When Mary Li stepped out of the county courthouse in Portland, Ore., with her wife, Rebecca Kennedy, she realized they had just become part of something big. "There literally was this moment of silence," she says, as she and Kennedy held up their marriage license for the crowd of hundreds of waiting gay and lesbian couples. "Then yon could hear this enormous sound as people erupted in applause and team."

Li and Kennedy were the first of more than 2,500 couples to get married in Multnomah County, where commissioners began issuing marriage licenses to gays and lesbians on March 3. And they have since joined a growing chorus of Oregonians who believe their state is even more important than California or New York in the fight for same-sex marriage. Oregon has a history of interpreting its constitution to prevent discrimination, Li and others say, and it is one of only 11 states that don't have a "defense of marriage" statute. While many in the state may not approve of homosexuality Li says, they are far more averse to discrimination, having defeated the last three antigay state ballot initiatives.

In fact, Oregon's distinctive social climate and legal conditions could lead to a repeat of what happened in Massachusetts, activists say, where a high court ordered that gay and lesbian couples be allowed to marry as of May 17. The difference in Oregon is that they're getting married now. "I will not be surprised to see a state supreme court ruling in oar favor," says Roey Thorpe, executive director of the gay rights group Basic Rights Oregon, which convinced the Multnomah commissioners to issue the licenses on constitutional grounds.

As of press time an Oregon resident had filed a brief with the state supreme court asking it to halt the Multnomah marriages. In the absence of such a ruling, county officials said they would continue to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. But the state has refused to register the licenses until the courts rule. So Li, 40, and Kennedy, 42, joined eight other couples in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon on March 24, challenging the state to recognize their marriages.

Oregon attorney general Hardy Myers has declined to intervene, instead issuing an advisory opinion in support of legalizing same-sex marriage in the state. …