Oregon's decade-old ban on same-sex marriage was struck down Monday by U.S. District Judge Michael McShane, a highly anticipated decision that immediately allowed throngs of joyous gay and lesbian couples across the state to tie the knot.
In a written ruling issued at noon, McShane found that the voter-approved ban was unconstitutional because it violates gay people's equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. McShane did not stay, or delay, his decision, which allowed same-sex marriages to begin at once.
In Lane County, about 20 couples were present at the county clerk's office in downtown Eugene when marriage licenses began being issued in the early afternoon. Several of the couples said they planned to marry that very day.
McShane ruled that the state had "no legitimate purpose" in limiting marriage to one man and one woman. In his opinion, he rebutted the argument that the state should protect the "tradition" of heterosexual-only marriage.
If tradition alone could legally supplant individuals' constitutional right to equal protection under the law, he wrote, it could be used as "a rubber stamp condoning discrimination against longstanding, traditionally oppressed minority classes everywhere."
McShane also dismissed arguments that the state is protecting children with the ban. That line of thinking ignores the adopted children of gay couples who, like their parents, are "degraded, humiliated and stigmatized" by the ban, he wrote.
"At the core of the Equal Protection Clause," McShane wrote, "there exists a foundational belief that certain rights should be shielded from the barking crowds; that certain rights are subject to ownership by all and not the stakehold of popular trend or shifting majorities."
McShane is the seventh consecutive federal judge to toss out a state's same-sex marriage ban following the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision last year to strike down key parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
Oregon's ban -- approved by voters as an amendment to the state Constitution in 2004 -- was challenged by four gay couples last year. In February, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said she would not defend the ban in court because of the Surpreme Court's decision.
McShane's ruling came despite a last-ditch effort by the National Organization for Marriage -- an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., that opposes same-sex marriage -- to delay it.
The group requested an emergency stay from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday morning to block any immediate ruling by McShane. About 45 minutes before McShane's ruling was expected, the federal appeals court rejected that motion.
The National Organization for Marriage is also asking the appellate court to allow them to intervene in the case -- a motion that McShane initially denied last week. The appellate court has not yet taken any action on that request.
Unless the National Organization for Marriage is allowed to intervene, however, no opponent of same-sex marriage has standing in the case to appeal McShane's ruling. Representatives of the National Organization for Marriage could not reached for comment Monday.
Ultimately, McShane's ruling may not be definitive until the issue goes back to the U.S. Supreme Court, which many observers expect it will.
In his often plainly worded written opinion, McShane, who is gay and raising a child with his longtime partner, alluded to his own life experiences as he called for greater understanding on the gay marriage issue.
Noting that "generations of Americans, my own included, were raised in a world in which homosexuality was believed to be a moral perversion, a mental disorder or a mortal sin," McShane recalled that "one of the more popular playground games of my childhood was called 'smear the queer.'"
That "worldview led to an environment of cruelty, violence and self-loathing," he added.
"With discernment we see not shadows lurking in closets or the stereotypes of what was once believed; rather, we see families committed to the common purpose of love, devotion and service to the greater community," McShane wrote.
McShane's ruling was widely applauded by gay marriage advocates and Oregon's leading politicians -- including U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio and Gov. John Kitzhaber.
"With today's ruling, Oregon can reaffirm a commitment to ensuring civil rights for all citizens, not just some," said DeFazio, the Springfield Democrat, in a prepared statement. "While there is still work to be done in our state and around the country, today's ruling in Eugene certainly marks an important milestone in the ongoing fight for equality for all."
David Fidanque, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, an organization that has long been involved in the same-sex marriage issue, said that "the importance of Judge McShane's decision cannot be overemphasized. Our federal Constitution does not allow any state -- or its voters -- to deny same-sex couples equal protection under the law simply because of who they are and who they love," he said in a prepared statement.
The Oregon Catholic Conference, however, slammed the decision as "a travesy of justice" and an attempt to redefine "authentic" marriages -- which, they argue, are unions between one man and one woman for the purposes of procreation.
"Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, in an extreme dereliction of her sworn duty to uphold the law, refused to represent the interests and the people of Oregon," the group said in a prepared statement. "It is a sad day for democracy when one federally appointed judge can overturn, without any representation, the express will of the people of Oregon."
There was no announcement Monday from the backers of a possible ballot measure to legalize gay marriage this November. The Oregon United for Marriage group, which has been gathering voter signatures in recent months, had previously said they would drop their effort if the same-sex marriage ban was struck down in court.
Spokesman Peter Zuckerman said that Monday "was about celebrating the victory" and that the final decision on a ballot measure would come later.
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