In a new twist in the battle over same-sex marriage roiling the United States, a county in Oregon has banned all marriages — gay and heterosexual — until the state decides who can and who cannot wed.
The last marriage licenses were handed out in Benton County at 4 p.m. PT on Tuesday. As of Wednesday, officials in the county of 79,000 people will begin telling couples applying for licenses to go elsewhere until the gay marriage debate is settled.
“It may seem odd,” Benton County Commissioner Linda Modrell told Reuters in a telephone interview, but “we need to treat everyone in our county equally.”
State Attorney General Hardy Myers said in a statement that he was “very pleased” with Benton County’s decision. “It is my sincere hope that legal process will provide clarity for each of Oregon’s counties.”
The three County commissioners had originally decided to start handing out gay marriage licenses this week but on Monday reversed that decision amid a growing firestorm of lawsuits across the country, and decided instead to put a temporary halt to all marriages.
Rebekah Kassell, a spokeswoman for Basic Rights Oregon, a pro-gay marriage group, told Reuters; “It is certainly a different way for county commissioners to respect their constitutional obligation to apply the law equally to everyone.
“We appreciate that they are willing to say they are not going to participate in discrimination.”
‘Perplexed’ by decision
Tim Nashif, the spokesman for the Defense of Marriage Coalition, said; “Oregon not only has the only county in the nation issuing illegal (same-sex) marriage licenses, we probably have the only county in the nation refusing to issue marriage licenses at all.”
“We are happy Benton County is not going to violate the law by issuing illegal marriage licenses, but we are perplexed as to why they would not issue legal licenses,” he added.
Benton County, whose county seat is Corvallis, is home to Oregon State University and is seen as a bastion of liberalism.
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union said it would file a lawsuit on Wednesday against Oregon or an unnamed state entity over the state’s failure to register the more than 2,550 marriage licenses issued by Portland’s Multnomah County to gay couples since March 3.
Multnomah County, the state’s most populous, is the only jurisdiction in the United States that continues to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Local governments from San Francisco to New Paltz, N.Y., have halted the practice amid lawsuits and protests.
In New Mexico, a judge on Tuesday issued a temporary restraining order to stop a Sandoval County clerk from issuing more marriage certificates to gay and lesbian couples.
Victoria Dunlap, the clerk for the county to the southwest of Santa Fe, issued 66 marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples on Feb. 20 before the state’s attorney general issued a statement declaring the marriages invalid.
The temporary injunction will be in effect until a state district judge can hear the case on the subject. The case is scheduled to be heard on April 2.