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Court's same-sex marriage ruling called a huge stride forward

State same-gender initiative could be on ballot next year

Amid a record-high national approval rate for gay marriage, Oregon officials and others praised the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

In a 5-4 ruling last week, the court said the federal act adopted in 1996 was unconstitutional because it violated the Fifth Amendment’s right to equal protection. The court’s decision by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the federal act limited the way states could recognize marriage or civil unions, creating unequal classes of people who could have civil unions but not the benefits of legal marriage.

“I’m very pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision,” said state Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin.by: SUBMITTED - Devlin

Devlin of District 19, which includes Lake Oswego and West Linn, said that a same-gender marriage initiative could be on its way to the ballot as early as 2014. A nonprofit gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization, Basic Rights Oregon, is leading the effort.

“I think there has been quite a swing in public opinion in the last five to 10 years, and I would think that (an initiative) would probably have a pretty good chance of passage in Oregon,” Devlin said.

Oregon law bans same-sex marriage but permits same-sex couples to enter into a domestic partnership, which grants the same state rights and benefits as married couples. Same-sex couples in Oregon do not have federal protections such as Social Security survivor benefits, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

Many top legislators agree the Supreme Court’s decision signals a historic shift in public opinion, and public polls support those assertions. About 45 percent of people approved, 40 percent disapproved and 15 percent didn’t know how they felt about the Supreme Court ruling, according to a Pew Research Center study released on Monday. In May, 51 percent favored same-sex marriage and 42 percent were opposed. The approval rate jumped 2 percentage points from last year and shot up from 39 percent in favor in 2008 and 31 percent in favor in 2004.

Oregon U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley called the decision “a huge stride forward for equality and fairness.”

“No one should be denied equal rights because of whom they love and discrimination has no place in our laws,” said Merkley, a Democrat from Portland.

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici said the highest court’s ruling was “a historic moment for America and another leap toward equal rights for all Americans regardless of sexual orientation.”

“As a nation, we have finally arrived at the obvious conclusion that the validity of a marriage is not subject to popular vote, but instead guaranteed as a matter of right,” said Bonamici, a Beaverton Democrat representing Oregon’s 1st Congressional District. “Love has replaced hate as the governing factor in the decision of same sex couples to marry.”

Vaune Albanese, executive director of Portland’s Friendly House, which operates the SAGE Metro Portland program for lesbian and gay older adults, said the Defense of Marriage Act decision was a relief to many older gay people in the region.

“This will be a day people in the (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) community will remember for the rest of our lives,” Albanese said. “SAGE members in their 80s and 90s have wondered if this day would come in their lifetimes.”

Last week’s decision was based on a New York case involving two women, Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, who were legally married in Ontario, Canada, in 2007. When Spyer died in 2009, the Defense of Marriage Act prevented Windsor from claiming the estate tax exemption for a surviving spouse.

Windsor paid the taxes and challenged the law in federal court.

Also on June 26, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal on California’s Proposition 8, which denied same-sex couples the right to marry. That decision effectively ended California’s ban on same-sex marriage because it affirmed a federal court ruling overturning the ban.

— Jillian Daley contributed to this story.

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