February 20, 2014 | by Chris Johnson
Oregon AG won’t defend marriage ban in court
Ellen Rosenblum, Oregon, gay news, Washington Blade

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum won’t defend her state’s marriage ban in court. (Photo public domain)

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum announced on Thursday she won’t defend the state’s ban on same-sex marriage against a legal challenge, saying the law cannot withstand judicial scrutiny “under any standard of review.”

Meanwhile, the campaign led by Oregon United for Marriage to bring marriage equality to the state via ballot measure in November says it is holding the surplus of signatures already collected pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

In a seven-page legal filing, Rosenblum says the state largely agrees with the contentions against the ban on same-sex marriage raised by plaintiffs in the case, known as Rummel v. Kitzhaber.

“State Defendants will not defend the Oregon ban on same-sex marriage in this litigation,” Rosenblum concludes. “Rather, they will take the position in their summary judgment briefing that the ban cannot withstand a federal constitutional challenge under any standard of review.”

A Democrat elected to office in 2012, Rosenblum’s decision is along the lines of her earlier determination in October that Oregon should respect same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.

Among the allegations that Rosenblum says the state won’t dispute in the lawsuit is the assertion that domestic partnerships, which Oregon has allowed since 2008, aren’t the equivalent of marriage.

“State Defendants admit that performing same-sex marriages in Oregon would have no adverse effect on existing marriages, and that sexual orientation does not determine an individual’s capacity to establish a loving and enduring relationship,” Rosenblum writes. “State Defendants likewise admit that domestic partnership registration confers many legal protections but not all of the rights, obligations, and privileges associated with marriage.”

Her decision not to defend the ban is consistent with the position of Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. Both Nevada and Oregon lie in the Ninth Circuit, where the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided heightened scrutiny applies to laws related to sexual orientation in the case of SmithKline v. Abbott Laboratories.

Notably, Rosenblum never mentions the SmithKline decision or legal precedent for heightened scrutiny in announcing her decision that she won’t defend Oregon’s ban. Instead, she concludes the law fails under any standard of review.

Thomas Wheatley, director of organizing at Freedom to Marry and an adviser to Oregon United for Marriage, praised Rosenblum.

“Attorney General Rosenblum is right in refusing to waste taxpayers’ dollars by defending the indefensible anti-marriage law in Oregon,” Wheatley said. “Rosenblum is joined by other attorneys general from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Nevada; and even Republican Governor Brian Sandoval in Nevada, who all came to the same conclusion that the state cannot in good conscience defend a law denying committed same-sex couples the freedom to marry.”

Brian Brown, president of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, nonetheless criticized Rosenblum for what he said was abandoning her constitutional duties.

“Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum is shamefully abandoning her constitutional duty to defend the marriage amendment overwhelmingly enacted by the people of Oregon,” Brown said. “She swore an oath of office that she would enforce all the laws, not just those she personally agrees with. The people are entitled to a vigorous defense of the laws they enact, and the marriage amendment is no exception to that solemn obligation.”

The case is pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon before U.S. District Judge Michael McShane, who’s gay and among the handful of openly gay federal judges serving on the federal bench. Oral arguments in the case are set for April 23.

Legal experts say the Ninth Circuit precedent for applying heightened scrutiny to matters related to sexual orientation bodes well for rulings in favor of marriage equality within this jurisdiction.

Campaign holding signatures for ballot initiative

At the same time the litigation is advancing, LGBT activists were preparing to bring the issue to the ballot once more in 2014 to reverse the ban and legalize same-sex marriage in Oregon.

Mike Marshall, campaign manager for Oregon United for Marriage, announced following Rosenblum’s decision that his campaign has already collected 160,000 signatures — more than the 116,284 needed by July 3 to qualify the measure for the ballot — but is placing those efforts on hold pending the outcome of the federal lawsuit.

“Now that we have done the hard work of assuring a place on the ballot and moving public opinion, we have the ability to wait for the courts to do the right thing,” Marshall said. “No one is interested in engaging in an expensive political campaign if we don’t have to. We have more than 4,000 volunteers across Oregon to thank for that.”

Meanwhile, Oregon United for Marriage is planning a statewide tour for the first two weeks of March to talk to supporters of same-sex marriage about the campaign’s next steps.

In 2004, Oregon voters approved at the ballot a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage with 57 percent of the vote. But public opinion has since changed. According to a poll unveiled Thursday by Oregon United for Marriage, 55 percent of likely November voters support same-sex marriage while 41 percent are opposed.

As preparations for the marriage initiative are underway, Oregon anti-gay groups are working to place on the ballot a religious exemption initiative on the ballot that would carve out a portion of state civil rights law to allow businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples.

Marshall said he’s prepared for a campaign against the anti-gay measure regardless of what happens with the marriage initiative.

“At a moment when Oregonians should be celebrating the imminent end of discrimination against loving, committed couples—we’re gearing up to fight another effort to write discrimination back into our laws,” Marshall said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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