Federal judge sets a February hearing
by: Jonathan House, HOLDING OUT HOPE – Collin Fellows and Marlin Hofer are looking forward to the day they will be able to retain all the same rights as a straight, married Oregon couple.

Collin Fellows uses just two sentences to describe himself in an online profile.

He is a gay artist who lives in the Portland area. And, he is in a 'stable, long-term relationship.'

Fellows' identity is entwined with that of his partner of nearly 10 years, Marlin Hofer, an Intel employee and a member of the Beaverton Human Rights Advisory Commission.

The two celebrated their commitment to each other in May 1999, complete with a limo ride, cake, friends and family.

'It was a kick,' Fellows said. 'For me, that will always be our wedding.'

Legally, it wasn't.

The two men had hoped that Jan. 2 would finally be the day that they could sign up for legal recognition of their relationship through the Oregon Family Fairness Act provisions for same-sex civil unions.

But a federal judge said Friday that there were enough questions about the way the Secretary of State handled a failed petition to refer the act to voters that he blocked the bill from becoming law, at least until a Feb. 1 hearing.

U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman decided during a 90-minute afternoon hearing in a packed courtroom that the petitioners' constitutional rights may have been violated by the way Secretary of State Bill Bradbury and 12 county clerks rejected signatures in a statistical sampling of the 62,000 submitted for a referendum.

It came down to five rejected signatures in the statistical sample, and the referendum was found just short of its required 55,719 signatures.

Attorney Austin Nimocks, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, represents three dozen petition signers whose names were rejected because the clerks said their information or signature did not match their voter registration cards or was illegible.

When volunteers from Restore America, a faith-based lobbying group, notified the petitioners that their signatures had been rejected, several petitioners contacted the clerks themselves to confirm that they had legally signed the petition. They were told - as in one instance - 'tough nuggets,' according to Executive Director of Restore America, David Crowe.

Nimocks argued in court Friday that this was unconstitutional and disenfranchised petitioners from the democratic process.

'The county clerks must fulfill their duty, which is to make sure that every citizen's legitimately submitted signature counts,' Nimocks said in a news release. 'The right to exercise one's voice in the democratic process is a crucial one, and state and county officials must not infringe upon that right.'

But Esther Griffin, a Beaverton activist who serves with Hofer on the Human Rights Advisory Commission, said opponents of the new law are just looking for an excuse to throw any roadblock in the way of same-sex partnerships.

'I think that these groups are just so desperate to make sure there's no legal recognition of same-sex relationships,' Griffin said. 'I'm just really angry. I think they're so possessed with this idea that homosexuality is going to ruin the country.'

She added: 'There are so many things that are more wrong with the world than Marlin and Collin signing a piece of paper so they can take care of each other if one of them dies.'

Domestic partnership rights

In fact, both men have lived through the traumatic experience of having a partner die and being powerless to fulfill their dying wishes.

Fellows was evicted and run out of Ohio when his partner died in the mid-1990s, even though they thought they had been prepared with wills and other documents.

About that same time, Hofer and his partner were making plans so that his partner's grief-stricken mother wouldn't have to handle his cremation arrangements. Despite extensive planning, Hofer said he was still unable to grant his partner's wishes and eventually had to force the mother to authorize her son's cremation.

'I thought we crossed the Ts and dotted the Is, but … in the end, I still had to do that,' Hofer said.

Particularly because of an estranged relationship with his family, Hofer said he wants to be sure that Fellows is able to make medical and funeral choices for him.

Fellows agreed, 'Whatever they want to call it will be a formality.'

The Family Fairness Act was to have granted many - though not all - financial and social rights and responsibilities that married couples have. Domestic partners would be able to make medical decisions for each other, have automatic parentage of any children born or adopted after declaration of the partnership, and file joint state income tax returns. Domestic partners would also have significant financial obligations to each other and would have to go through a procedure similar to a divorce to dissolve the partnership.

For all that, said Karynn Fish, a spokesperson for gay-rights lobbying group Basic Rights Oregon, a domestic partnership is not a marriage.

Because the rights and responsibilities stop at the Oregon border, and don't extend to many federal programs such as Social Security, military or other federal benefits and pensions, Fish said the two forms of union are 'really different.'

The distinction is important because in 2004, 57 percent of Oregonians approved Measure 36, which defined marriage between a man and a woman only.

'O-N-L-Y. I don't know how you get away from that,' said David Crowe, who is director of Concern Oregonians, the group that circulated the referendum petition.

Crowe said he believes the Legislature dishonored the will of the people in order to give special rights to a small interest group.

'They created marriage by another name,' he said. 'The facts stand on our side, no matter what the other side says.'

Crowe said the domestic partnership law is discriminatory because it doesn't allow heterosexual couples, such as a grandmother and her caretaker, to enter into a similar union.

He believes that voters should have a right to have their voices heard on whether or not same-sex civil unions are more acceptable than same-sex marriages.

'It's not that we 'hate' anyone,' Crowe said. 'We just simply believe that the voters have a right to decide on a major, major social issue.'

'It has nothing to do with discrimination,' he added, 'it has to do with us protecting our families and protecting our right to speak up. We have a right to speak up.'

According to its Web site, Concerned Oregonians believes that homosexuals are not normal or healthy role models for children. The group also believes that sanctioning same-sex unions is against the will of God.

The fight for rights

Fellows and Hofer, like many of their friends who are in long-term same-sex relationships, still plan to become legal partners in the eyes of the law whenever that becomes available - whether after the February hearing or after the possible referendum vote in November, if the petitioners are successful.

Though the delays are disappointing, Fellows, who calls himself a 'silver-lining kind of guy,' said he feels that gay rights have come a long way in just a few decades and every time the issue comes up brings them one step closer to their goal.

'I think it just reinforces that we are a part of the community and we should have the same rights that everyone else does,' he said.

For now, at the bank, with the cable company and myriad other areas of life, Fellows will still have to fight to be able to do things that would be immediately granted to heterosexual couples.

Fellows said that in Beaverton, it's not too hard though. With the right amount of work and tenacity, 'you can do almost all the things that should be granted automatically.'

'That 'almost' is important,' Hofer said pointedly. 'That 'almost' is worth fighting to try to get.'

If it's up to Restore America, they will have a long battle.

'Marriage between a man and a woman only is the backbone of all moral and civilized society. Anything else is something far less, a deception of the worst order and to be resisted at all costs,' Crowe wrote in a recent e-mail.

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