updated 4/20/2004 6:34:47 PM ET 2004-04-20T22:34:47

A judge told Multnomah County to stop issuing same-sex marriage licenses Tuesday, but he handed gay and lesbian couples a historic victory by ordering Oregon to recognize the 3,000 licenses that had already been granted in the county, the first time a judge has recognized same-sex marriages anywhere in the nation.

“These are the first legally recognized gay marriages in the country,” said Dave Fidanque, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Oregon. “In no other same-sex marriages that have taken place has there been a court order saying the state must recognize them. That’s what’s truly historic about this opinion.”

The county began allowing same-sex marriages March 3, making it the only place in the nation where gays and lesbians could get married. The county has issued 3,022 marriage licenses to same-sex couples since then.

In his ruling, Multnomah County Circuit Judge Frank Bearden told the county to cease issuing same-sex licenses until the Legislature has a chance to fashion a new law, perhaps allowing Vermont-style civil unions.

He gave the Legislature 90 days from the start of its next session to come up with the new law. If that does not happen, Multnomah County can resume issuing marriage licenses to gays and lesbians.

Legislators could convene in Salem as early as June for a session that was intended to focus on tax reform.

Marriages on hold nationwide
Bearden’s action effectively ends same-sex marriages nationwide, at least until May 17, when Massachusetts is scheduled to begin allowing them following a high court ruling there.

The decision came in a lawsuit that has consolidated all the arguments over same-sex unions in hope of a quick ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court. An immediate appeal was expected.

Kevin Neely, a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office, called Bearden’s decision “a big step in what will be a bit longer process.”

“Our goal from the beginning was to get a ruling from the Supreme Court, but this initial ruling does provide at least some clarity and a framework for moving to that next step,” Neely said. “The real key here is to give the Legislature an opportunity to craft a law that the courts will deem constitutionally sound.”

Bonnie Tinker, of the pro-gay marriage group Love Makes a Family, was critical of the judge’s order.

“I am extremely disappointed that this will not continue until there is an Oregon Supreme Court decision, especially when there is so much legal opinion that it is unconstitutional to deny same-sex marriages in Oregon,” said Tinker, who married her partner of 27 years in the Quaker Church on Saturday.

A half-hour after the ruling, Katharine Sprecher and Nitzye Gonzalez sobbed in the corner of the county clerk’s office, wiping each other’s tears away.

They had filled out a marriage application, gotten married at Metropolitan Community Church and returned to the county Tuesday with the paperwork to make it all official. But their return was just moments too late.

“I was a little shell-shocked. I was expecting this day to turn out very different,” Sprecher said. “I didn’t realize there was going to be a ruling today. I thought we had until Thursday.”

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