updated 4/14/2005 1:03:05 PM ET 2005-04-14T17:03:05

The Oregon Supreme Court on Thursday nullified nearly 3,000 marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples by Multnomah County a year ago, saying a single county couldn’t take such action on its own.

The court said while the county can question the constitutionality of laws governing marriage, they are a matter of statewide concern so the county had no authority to issue licenses to gay couples.

The court noted that last November, Oregonians approved a constitutional amendment that limits marriages to a man and a woman. The court also said that long before that vote, state law had set the same limitations on marriages since Oregon became a state.

“Today, marriage in Oregon — an institution once limited to opposite-sex couples only by statute — now is so limited by the state Constitution as well,” the court ruling said.

Alternative unions possible
The court left the door open for state legislators to craft an alternative to gay marriages, such as civil unions.

“We conclude that Oregon law currently places the regulation of marriage exclusively within the province of the state’s legislative power,” the court said.

Members of the Legislature have been awaiting the ruling to give them guidance on how to proceed on the issue.

A day earlier, Gov. Ted Kulongoski said he will push for a law allowing gay couples to form civil unions that would give them many of the rights available to married couples.

County acts alone
Multnomah County began issuing marriages to gay couples last April, arguing that not doing so violated the state Constitution. A judge ordered the practice to cease about six weeks later, but not before nearly 3,000 same-sex couples had wed.

Vermont is the first and still the only state to offer civil unions to gays, passing a law in 2000. Massachusetts has allowed gay marriage since last May. Both those changes came about after court rulings.

Kulongoski’s backing of a civil unions law expands on his announcement in January that he would support legislation extending anti-discrimination protections to gays.

“As I stated in January, we face a great moral challenge to make sure opportunity is an open door through which every citizen can pass — not a revolving door which turns for some and doesn’t budge for others,” he said.

The state’s leading gay rights group, Basic Rights Oregon, praised the governor’s decision to move ahead on civil unions legislation.

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