A state law allowing gay couples to register as domestic partners belatedly took effect Friday after a federal judge ruled the state's process of disqualifying petition signatures was consistent enough to be valid.
The state quickly announced that the domestic partnership applications were available online, and jubilant gay-rights activists predicted hundreds of couples would line up on Monday morning at county offices to register.
"We're a family. We've been waiting for this for a long time," said a beaming Cathy Kravitz of Portland. She said she and her partner of 21 years will be among those registering on Monday.
The law passed by the 2007 Legislature was to take effect when the new year started, but U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman suspended it to hear testimony about a petition drive that sought to put the law before voters.
The petitions fell 96 signatures short of the 55,179 needed to refer the law to the November 2008 ballot. The petitioners claim that county clerks rejected signatures improperly.
Arizona group plans to appeal
The Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based group that advocates for Christian legal issues, said it would appeal Mosman's ruling.
Fund lawyer Austin Nimocks had argued that a signature on a petition should have the same weight as a signature on a ballot, and that elections officials should have made more of an effort to contact voters whose signatures were disqualified.
But Mosman said signatures on a petition amounted to, "a call for an election, not a substitution for an election."
Testimony at the hearing turned on whether Oregon counties had a "common standard" to evaluate whether a voter's signature on a petition was valid. Mosman said the state had supplied enough evidence — if just barely — that a common standard existed in all 36 counties.
Petitioners plan to start another drive to put the domestic partnership law to a referendum.
"We want to vote — we think that our signatures mean something and it was an arbitrary move by the secretary of state's office," said Carolyn Wendell, who was a chief petitioner in the lawsuit.
Gay rights groups said they were prepared to continue fighting, both in court and on the ballot.
"The (Alliance Defense Fund) is an out-of-state group that could care less about the individual rights of folks here in Oregon," said Jeana Frazzini, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon. "They have certainly demonstrated that through the harm they have caused to same sex couples across this state because of the delay they've faced for the past month."
Inheritances, joint tax returns
Gay couples who register as domestic partners will be able to file joint state tax returns, inherit each other's property and make medical choices on each other's behalf, along with a host of other state benefits given to married Oregonians.
In 2004, about 3,000 same-sex couples were granted marriage licenses in Multnomah County, the largest county in Oregon. But Oregon voters later approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage, and the state Supreme Court nullified the marriage licenses.
Oregon becomes the ninth state to approve spousal rights in some form for gay couples, joining Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Maine, California, Washington and Hawaii. Massachusetts is the only state that allows gay couples to marry.