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Oregon may be next state for gay marriage ballot battle

PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS) After a string of victories for gay rights at the ballot box this year, gay rights groups here are positioning for a 2014 battle to try and become the first state to overturn a 10-year constitutional ban on gay marriage. By Harry Esteve.

PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS) Three states made history Tuesday (Nov. 6) voting to approve same-sex marriage, and a fourth repudiated an attempt to ban it.

Oregon, once known as a trailblazer for progressive causes, wasn't among them. But that could change in 2014.

Local gay rights activists stand by a decision they made a year ago not to pursue a marriage ballot measure this year because the timing wasn't right.

“This has unfolded exactly as it should,” Jeana Frazzini, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, said Wednesday. Rather than seeing Tuesday's cross-country support for gays and lesbians as a missed opportunity, Frazzini said the votes in Washington, Maine, Maryland and Minnesota help set the stage for 2014.

“I am more confident than ever that we will be the first state to overturn a constitutional ban on marriage” for same-sex couples, she said. Although no firm decision has been made, she said it is “likely” that her organization would spearhead a same-sex marriage ballot campaign in two years.

Oregon, like many states, has a mixed record on how it treats same-gender couples. In 2004, voters approved Measure 36, a constitutional amendment that prohibits marriage except between a man and a woman. In 2007, the state Legislature approved domestic partnerships that allow same-sex couples to register and get many of the same rights and benefits as married couples.

“It's not full equality,” said state House Democratic Leader Tina Kotek, who is openly gay. “Full equality is the ability to marry.”

Now that Democrats have regained control of the Legislature, Kotek is in line to be the next Oregon House speaker, which would make her the first openly lesbian speaker in the country. She said any effort to overturn the ban on marriage should come from the citizenry.

“It will not be a legislative referral,” she said. “At the end of the day, this is a community decision.”

Kotek was among those who pushed to delay a ballot measure campaign a year ago, despite calls by some gay activists to go for it. In a piece published in The Oregonian, she wrote, “While I'm eager to win the freedom to marry for all committed Oregon couples, I know that we should only move forward when the time is right.”

She said she still believes that was the right decision, despite the victories for same-sex marriage achieved elsewhere around the nation.

In Washington and Maryland, voters upheld legislative approval of same-sex marriage that had been referred to the ballot by opponents. In Maine, after voters initially reversed the state legislature's same-sex marriage law in 2009, voters Tuesday changed course again and approved it.

The votes ended a streak of more than 30 failed attempts to approve same-sex marriage at the ballot box.

“No regret,” Kotek said about Oregon's timing. “Having those wins in other states is the momentum we need.”

The most likely organized opposition to such a campaign would come from the Oregon Family Council, which led the charge to ban gay marriage in 2004.

“It's no secret that Basic Rights Oregon has been looking at this,” said Teresa Harke, spokeswoman for the council. “We've been preparing for it.”

Harke called Tuesday's results “disappointing,” but said they don't mean Oregonians would follow suit.

“We don't do things just because Washington does,” she said. “Washington passed marijuana last night; we didn't.”

Oregon would have to amend its constitution — Washington and other states were dealing with statute change. And, she said, 2014 might be a more difficult year to pass a same-sex marriage measure because there's no presidential race to draw voters, Harke said.

Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts said such a measure might stand a better chance in 2016.

“They will definitely do better in a high turnout election, because it would bring out younger voters who are more comfortable with gay marriage,” Hibbitts said. “They would have a chance in 2014, but it's a much dicier proposition for them because of the turnout mix.”

(Harry Esteve writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.)