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Rulings please local same-sex couples

Stay-at-home mom Holly Vann called last week’s historic gay rights decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court “a huge deal” for her family.

“It’s a giant step,” said Vann, who married her partner, Sherri, in a civil ceremony in Gresham on June 15, 2002, a year to the day after their first kiss. by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Rae and Heather Nichelle-Peres pause on the Pacific University campus in Forest Grove Friday, two days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The Portland couple (Heather is a Pacific graduate; Rae graduated from Portland State University) hope the ruling will pave the way for legal same-sex marriage in Oregon.

She predicted that the court’s dual June 26 rulings — which struck down the 17-year-old federal Defense of Marriage Act and nullified California’s Proposition 8 — could soon pave the way for legal same-sex marriage in Oregon.

“If not,” Holly said, “it might mean we’ll move.”

Coming on the heels of a national sea change in peoples’ attitudes about gay rights, the high court’s signaling of support for marriage equality means everything to Sherri and Holly, who share a home in Cornelius and are the parents of two young children.

Holly was artificially inseminated after she and Rae decided they wanted kids. They’ve gone to great lengths to ensure that their daughters Jordan, 11, and Kendra, 9, will be provided for should something happen to one of them — not an easy task for same-sex partners. by: COURTESY PHOTOS - Together for 12 years, Sherri and Holly Vann were legally married in Canada in 2003 because Oregon does not recognize same-sex marriage. Here, they pose outdoors a day before Holly gave birth to their oldest daughter, Jordan.

The Vanns had to work hard to get legal paperwork that says if something happened to one of them, the remaining partner would retain guardianship of the girls. To that end, they married legally in Vancouver, B.C., in September 2003 and cemented a domestic partnership at the Washington County Courthouse in February 2008.

“We just kept trying to get it more legal,” said Holly. “It’s a never-ending process.”

Sherri supports the family by working as a software engineer at TriQuint Semiconductor in Hillsboro, and they attend the United Church of Christ in Forest Grove.

Both military veterans — Sherri was in the Air Force and Holly was in the Army — the women nevertheless were denied a federal loan on their house because of their same-sex status.

“Only one of us can be on the title,” Holly observed.

The end of DOMA could change all that by extending federal financial and tax benefits to same-sex couples that meet the litmus test of being legally married.

OFC decries ‘wrong message’

Gov. John Kitzhaber last week called the high court’s DOMA ruling “a proud moment for the nation,” and U.S. Rep Suzanne Bonamici chimed in with her approval, heralding the decision as “another leap toward equal rights for all Americans regardless of sexual orientation.”

Officials of the Oregon Family Council, which supports DOMA and in 2004 formed the Defense of Marriage Coalition, expressed disappointment in the rulings, saying the Supreme Court “sends a wrong message” that is “less about what’s best for children — which in general is having them raised by their married mothers and fathers — and more about the interests of romantically involved adults.”

The rulings “leave in place the marriage amendments adopted by 30 states,” pointed out Teresa Harke, OFC spokeswoman. “The definition of marriage enshrined by the citizens of Oregon through the passage of Measure 36 is still intact. The Supreme Court found no constitutional right to redefine marriage.”

And Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum warned that last Wednesday’s decision could have little effect here unless the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is overturned.

Still, for gay couples and those who support them, the ruling was an undeniable victory.

‘I was ecstatic’

Last Wednesday, Heather Nichelle-Peres set her alarm to ring at 6:30 a.m., a half-hour before she expected the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of DOMA.

She sat down in front of her laptop, opened her Internet browser and waited to learn whether the nation’s highest court would uphold or overturn the 1996 law that — among other things — denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.

When she read the justices had ruled 5-4 that the federal act was unconstitutional, she began screaming and jumping up and down.

“I was ecstatic,” said Nichelle-Peres , a recent Pacific University graduate who is in a committed relationship with Rae Nichelle-Peres. “I couldn’t contain myself.”

Since Oregon is one of more than 30 states that don’t recognize gay marriage as legal, Rae and Heather are domestic partners in the eyes of the law. But the lesbian couple, who met 11 years ago and now live in Portland, long for something more — something last week’s rulings could eventually bring them: federal recognition of their union and the same benefits married heterosexual couples enjoy.

The justices stopped short of requiring all states to recognize same sex unions and instead ruled that no one can deny federal marriage benefits to gay couples who are legally wed.

“I was hoping for a broader ruling that would legalize (same-sex) marriage nationally,” said Heather, who was a student leader for the Human Rights Campaign, anational gay-rights advocacy group, while a student at Pacific. She now works as a wedding officiant and vocalist.

“Then I thought, ‘All our hard work is paying off. We’re sort of winning the war.’”

Court nullifies Prop 8

In a separate opinion a week ago, the Supreme Court essentially nullified Proposition 8, which defines marriage in California as being between one man and one woman — as does Oregon’s Measure 36, which still stands.

Jeana Frazzini, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon and Oregon United for Marriage, said the DOMA and Prop 8 decisions foreshadow a potential new era for equal rights in Oregon.

“This decision is monumental, but it also underscores the work to be done here,” said Frazzini, whose groups are working to put an initiative to legalize same-sex marriage on the November 2014 ballot.

“Until it is legal for same-sex couples to marry in Oregon, federal relationship recognition will likely remain complicated, leaving Oregon’s families in limbo.”

Jennifer Yocum, pastor of the UCC in Forest Grove — one of the first Christian denominations to support marriage equality in 2005 — looks at the evolution of same-sex equal rights through a spiritual lens.

As a lesbian, Yocum has “actively worked against” every anti-gay ballot measure since the original No on 9 campaign in Oregon in 1992.

But “I don’t take anti-gay arguments personally,” she added. “God’s grace works on all of us in God’s time.”

Heather Nichelle-Peres thinks the time to take the next step in Oregon is now.

“With the Supreme Court decisions, people are really starting to think (marriage equality) is inevitable,” Heather said. “This sets a really good legal precedent to toss out Measure 36. A lot of people are just tired of thinking about it when there are so many other, more important issues to tackle, like education, employment and veterans’ issues.”

Last Wednesday evening, she and Rae went out to dinner at their favorite French restaurant to celebrate the court’s rulings.

“We just celebrated 10 years together in March,” said Heather. “My ultimate wish is that on the 10th anniversary of our first wedding, we can be legally married in Oregon.”

The Vanns are a poster family for that dilemma. They feel the Supreme Court decisions will highlight “just how big a difference being able to legally marry can make to a couple and a family,” Holly said.

While the immediate impact on her family is unclear, “the rulings will change lives, opinions and, hopefully, more laws,” she said. “We are thrilled to see one more barrier fall.”




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