Although Democrats in the Oregon Legislature have the votes to put gay marriage on the ballot in 2014, lawmakers and activists say it's more likely it will be referred to voters in two years through the initiative petition process.
The only way majority Democrats would refer it directly to voters, says Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, is if polling were strongly in favor of the step.
House Majority Leader Tina Kotek — who most lawmakers expect will be named speaker this week — agrees with Buckley.
"There are no shortcuts in this debate," she said. "A grass-roots, citizen-led effort is the way to go."
Kotek, who would be the state's first openly gay speaker, said the climate for marriage equality improves each year — and having another two years to organize and educate people would increase chances of passing a measure.
"I'm very excited what (other states) have done for marriage equality," Kotek said.
But Oregon faces the additional challenge of being the first state to attempt to change the constitution on gay marriage after voters eight years ago defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.
"Our community doesn't want to go through this again and lose," said the Portland Democrat. "But the world is changing when you see the president support it and get re-elected. We need to be ready and 2014 gives us time."
The one-man-one-woman amendment passed with 56.6 percent support in 2004.
By law, only the voters, not the Legislature, can change the state constitution.
Same-sex marriage is legal in Washington, Iowa, New York, Maryland and most of the New England states. In addition to Oregon, it is constitutionally banned in Idaho, Utah, Montana, Arizona, Alaska, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, much of the Plains states and all Southern states.
State Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, said if gay marriage came before the Legislature, it's possible some Republicans "might get on board, especially with an open lesbian as speaker... . It's very likely a referral will take place. Anything is possible."
However, said Richardson, last week's failure of a marijuana legalization ballot measure shows Oregon is more conservative than Washington, which legalized marijuana, so voter approval of gay marriage may be more difficult here.
Jeana Frazzini, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, the main group working for marriage equality, said the organization doesn't plan to ask the Legislature for direct referral to voters.
"It's a decision the voters will make and we want to build toward 2014," said Frazzini, "but we don't rule out asking the Legislature to refer it."
Frazzini called it "an amazing year," with four states voting for marriage equality or blocking bans on it.
"What's changing the landscape is those state votes, plus an increasing ability to engage the community in a meaningful dialogue about why marriage matters and creating strong community and family based on lifetime commitments."
Courts, she noted, have rebuffed attempts to overturn the state's constitutional amendment, so a change in the constitution by voters is the only route open at this point.
Ashlander Gina DuQuenne, president of Southern Oregon Pride, said she plans to "work diligently" to gather signatures placing marriage equality on the ballot and getting regional mayors to support the move, though many, she notes, "won't return my calls."
Working with Mayor John Stromberg of Ashland, she recently won the endorsement of the Ashland City Council. However, she said, she doesn't think the Legislature wants to "take the risk."
"The people need to take this into their own hands," says DuQuenne. "It's about acceptance of diversity in life itself. We're in a "Modern Family" world and people need to step into the 21st century. Look at how it's changing politically. More people are aware and even our president and vice president support it."
DuQuenne could get married in Washington, but, she said, "the moment I come across the Oregon line, it won't be recognized."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.