Oregon's attorney general will not defend the state's same-sex marriage ban in court, lending momentum to activists seeking to end the last such remaining ban on the West Coast.
The announcement by Attorney General Ellen F. Rosenblum on Thursday does not, however, make same-sex marriage legal in Oregon, and the matter will probably be defended in court by another group.
But she is now part of a small but growing group of attorneys general who have decided to stop defending such laws in the face of a recent judicial onslaught that has put the future of the nation's remaining same-sex marriage bans in serious doubt.
"Marriage is the way that loving couples become family to each other and to their extended families, and there is no good reason to exclude same-sex couples from marriage in Oregon, or from having their marriages recognized here," Rosenblum said in a statement Thursday.
In many circumstances, that statement would be a bold one coming from the top law enforcement official in Oregon, who is tasked with upholding the laws on the state's books. When state laws are struck down in court, as a practice, the attorney general often appeals.
But Rosenblum's remarks questioning the law's legality fall closely in line with the findings of federal judges in states across the U.S. in recent months. There has been no single major federal opinion upholding a ban since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and declared that same-sex couples who are legally married deserve equal rights to the benefits that go to heterosexual married couples.
Since then, in rulings in Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Ohio and Utah, federal judges have repeatedly ruled that state restrictions violate gay and lesbian couples' basic constitutional rights. Arguments that restricting marriage to one man and one woman is important for child health or upholding tradition have been swatted away as unfounded.
Bolstered by those rulings, lawsuits against remaining state bans are percolating in front of judges across the U.S. With more than one such suit now in front of federal District Judge Michael McShane, Rosenblum has pre-emptively declared the state's same-sex marriage ban a lost cause.
"Because we cannot identify a valid reason for the state to prevent the couples who have filed these lawsuits from marrying in Oregon, we find ourselves unable to stand before federal Judge McShane to defend the state's prohibition against marriages between two men or two women," Rosenblum said.
Attorneys general in Nevada, Pennsylvania, California, Illinois and Virginia have made similar declarations. When a federal judge struck down Virginia's ban late at night last week, Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring was among the first to break the news — in celebration.
Same-sex marriage proponents in Oregon were already celebrating Thursday, with the activist group Oregon United for Marriage announcing that it had gathered enough signatures to put a repeal of the state's ban on the ballot in November.
But Rosenblum's announcement was also "tremendous news," Oregon United for Marriage campaign manager Mike Marshall said in a statement.
"The dramatic increase in Oregonians' support for the freedom to marry — from 42 percent support in May 2010 to 55 percent support today — mirrors the movement we're seeing nationally," Marshall said.
"More and more people understand that no one should be denied the freedom to marry the person they love."