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Oregon attorney general: Gay marriage illegal

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Same-sex marriages

(CNN) -- Oregon's attorney general advised county officials Friday that issuing same-sex marriage licenses is against state law -- but added that the law in question may be unconstitutional.

In the wake of the opinion by Attorney General Hardy Myers, Gov. Ted Kulongoski urged officials in Multnomah County to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples until the state Supreme Court can decide whether laws limiting matrimony to heterosexuals pass constitutional muster.

"There is only one body in this state that can give us a definitive ruling on whether this is constitutional or not, and that entity is the Oregon Supreme Court," Kulongoski said. "Until the Supreme Court rules, we should abide by the laws of the state of Oregon."

The governor and attorney general said they are exploring ways to expedite the legal case to get the matter before the state's highest court as quickly as possible.

On March 3, Multnomah County, which includes Portland, began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the county attorney concluded that refusing to do so violated the state constitution.

Washington is among a handful of states that are debating the legality of same-sex marriages.

Marriage licenses have also been granted to same-sex couples in San Francisco, California; New Paltz, New York; Asbury Park, New Jersey; and Sandoval County, New Mexico.

There have been legal challenges to the marriages in each of the municipalities.

Massachusetts is poised to become the first state to legally sanction gay marriages after the state's Supreme Judicial Court ordered state officials to grant same-sex marriage licenses by May 17.

But legislators there took tentative steps this week in favor of a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage but would legalize same-sex civil unions. (Full story)

Kulongoski asked the attorney general to issue a legal opinion on whether the licenses in Oregon violated existing state law and his views on the larger constitutional question.

Myers said Friday that existing state law "unquestionably" limits marriage to couples of the opposite sex. But Myers said he believes it is likely that the Supreme Court would conclude that the distinction violates a constitutional prohibition on granting "privileges and immunities" to one "class of citizens" while denying them to another.

However, Myers also conceded that it is difficult to predict what the high court might do.

"This is a complex issue. There is limited case law that pertains to this issue, and the outcome is not certain," he said.

Kulongoski urged local officials to follow existing state law in the meantime because it is "unacceptable" for different jurisdictions to use different standards for granting marriage licenses.

"The citizens of Oregon need certainty about the law, and the law must be uniform throughout the state," he said, adding that state agencies have begun receiving requests from newly married same-sex couples seeking to change their driver's licenses and insurance coverage.

However, Kulongoski said he does not have the authority to order Multnomah County to stop issuing marriage licenses. And while prosecutors could bring misdemeanor charges against officials who persist, "If I were asked, I would say, don't do it," the governor said.

The legality of the more than 1,000 licenses already issued to same-sex couples by Multnomah County remains in question. Hardy said their validity will ultimately be determined by what the Supreme Court decides.

Kulongoski, a Democrat, said he supports civil unions for same-sex couples that carry the same rights and responsibilities as marriage. He said Friday that the word marriage has become a "flash point."

"I believe that every citizen in this state is entitled to the same rights, privileges, responsibilities as every other citizen," he said. "I think that we as a people can work our way through this, and I think we can do it in a way that's fair, that's civil and that serves as an example for the rest of the states."

But the governor also gently complained that the issue has become a distraction -- for him and for the state.

"This issue has occupied more of my time in the last two weeks than I actually think the majority of the people in Oregon think that I should have spent on it," he said.

Opponents of same-sex marriage have filed suit against Multnomah County, seeking an injunction to stop the licensing. Kulongoski and Hardy said that case may be a way to get the issue before the Supreme Court but other options also are being explored.

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