Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said Thursday the state would not defend the prohibition of same-sex marriage that’s facing two challenges in federal court.

Rosenblum’s announcement could signal the end of a federal court legal fight that began nearly a decade ago to overturn Oregon’s 2004 Ballot Measure 36, which amended the state constitution to define marriage as a union of one man and one woman. Basic Rights Oregon, a group advocating for same-sex marriage rights, helped promote the state’s Family Fairness Act, which granted domestic partnership rights to most same-sex couples, but fell short of the same rights granted to heterosexual couples.

The organization has been working for several months to put a measure on the 2014 ballot that would overturn the ban on same-sex marriage. Oregon United for Marriage has gathered enough signatures to put the issue to a vote in November, and plans to suspend its campaign until a federal court ruling in the cases. The campaign gathered more than 160,000 signatures, far more than the 116,284 required to put the issue on the ballot. Officials said the campaign would hold onto the signatures, pending the outcome of the federal lawsuits.

Jack Louman, executive director of the Oregon Family Council, which opposes same-sex marriage and the proposed ballot measure, criticized Rosenblum’s decision, saying the attorney general “has ignored her duty to defend the Oregon Constitution and the will of the majority of Oregonians that approved Measure 36 in 2004.”

Louman called on the governor to appoint a special defender “to represent natural marriage on behalf of the state.”

“It is an outright attack on democracy and the legitimacy of the judicial system for a duly enacted constitutional amendment by the people to have no defense in federal court,” Louman said.

'No reasonable or legal justification'

Rosenblum said Thursday that her office decided against a protracted legal fight because Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage could violate the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection clause.

“The law in this area is developing and it is now clear that there is no rational basis for Oregon to refuse to honor the commitments made by same-sex couples in the same way it honors the commitments of opposite-sex couples,” Rosenblum told reporters. “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.”

Thursday’s decision means the state will not fight two federal court lawsuits that challenged the constitutionality of the 2004 ballot measure. Both lawsuits were filed in Eugene’s federal court branch. The first, Geiger, Nelson, Duehming and Griesar v. Kitzhaber, was filed Oct. 15. The second lawsuit, Rummell, West, Chickadonz, Tanner and Basic Rights Oregon v. Kitzhaber, was filed Dec. 19.

In addition to Gov. John Kitzhaber, Rosenblum was named as a defendant in both lawsuits, along with State Registrar Jennifer Woodward and Multnomah County Assessor Randy Waldruff.

Rosenblum had asked a federal judge handling the cases (they were combined for one trial) for more time to answer the two complaints. However, she said Thursday the state would file its answer to the lawsuits in April, outlining reasons for declining the fight the challenges.

Basic Rights Oregon and other groups hailed the decision, saying it put the state one step closer to giving same-sex couples the same rights as others in marriage and related issues.

“I am more confident than ever that same sex couples will have the freedom to marry before the year is out,” said Jeana Frzzini, Basic Rights Oregon executive director.

“With thousands of loving, committed couples in Oregon waiting to marry, we are hopeful that the judge will make a swift decision that clears the way for everyone to marry the person they love.”

“This is tremendous news. The attorney general has taken a close look at the facts, and came to the same conclusion that courts around the country and freedom-minded Oregonians have: there is no reasonable or legal justification to exclude committed gay and lesbian couples from marriage,” says Oregon United for Marriage campaign manager Mike Marshall.

The American Civil Liberties Union in Portland also praised Rosenblum’s decision.

“While court cases can take unexpected turns, today’s announcement by Attorney General Rosenblum is extremely important for everyone who supports the civil rights and civil liberties of all Oregonians,” said David Fidanque, ACLU of Oregon executive director.

The national Freedom to Marry group said Rosenblum’s decision falls in line with other attorneys general who have faced similar federal court fights on marriage rights.

“The rapid momentum for the freedom to marry in states across the country underscores the understanding that the Constitution’s guarantee of the freedom to marry and equal protection under the law apply to gay and non-gay people alike,” said Thomas Wheatley, director of organizing at Freedom to Marry and an adviser to Oregon United for Marriage. “America — and Oregon — are ready for the freedom to marry.”

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