Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Gay Marriage: The West Coast

The situations in San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle are quite different, despite the political similarities between the cities.

In San Francisco, we have a city with probably the most significant gay population in the country, and a politically active one, to boot.  During election season, San Francisco candidates come to the leather bar beer bust on Sunday afternoon to address their constituents!  We also have a case where the city’s mayor and the the county executive are one and the same, so the mayor could make the order.  Mayor Newsom is aware that the various DOMA laws are probably unconstitutional, but that the courts won’t hear challenges to them unless the laws are having an impact; that is, until there are same-sex marriages done locally or by other states, the laws don’t do anything but sit and menace.  By pushing gay marriages forward – and in the sort of extreme volume only San Francisco can generate – he forces the question.  In the end, as he has said, this may severely damage his political career.  But he will have eternally made himself a hero for some portions of the populace, and if he succeeds, he’ll have also made his political career.

With Portland, there is no state DOMA law to interfere, and clear prohibitions against discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation.  Further, the state’s marriage laws specify age requirements for males and females engaging in marriage, but do not specify one and only one of each.  This has left the door open for the issuing of same-sex marriage licenses, with only the incentive of San Francisco and Massachusetts needed to kick things off.  (Indeed, the ball started rolling in Oregon before San Francisco started issuing licenses.)  Oregon thus ends up in the same class as Massachusetts, and the actions will probably result in both a trip to the state Supreme Court and an attempt to amend the state Constitution, but with the added kick that this is right now just a single county issuing the licenses, but also the most populous county, which could set off a string of lawsuits against other counties in the state if they don’t follow Multnomah County’s lead.  (Oregon is also peculiar in that its population density is such that Multnomah and Lane counties — Portland and Eugene — rule the roost.  Anti-gay initiatives in that state failed when every county except those two voted for them.  Amending the state Constitution is apt to be equally as difficult.)

In Seattle, we have a nicely liberal populace — heck, Kucinich scored delegates here.  But we also have a DOMA law.  Seattle’s mayor, Greg Nickels, has already passed the marriage buck to the county, and county executive Ron Sims has proven unwilling to take the Newsom route.  This isn’t because Sims isn’t friendly to the gay community, but because he’s very aware of the potential damage to his political career.  See, Sims is running for governor this year, and Washington’s population, while weighted toward the west side of the Cascades, isn’t as imbalanced as Oregon’s: he has to be aware of the more conservative Eastern Washington and what advocating for same-sex civil marriage could do to his support from that part of the state.  (I can’t blame him, frankly.  He’ll be of more value to our community as governor for the next four years than if he pushes on this issue and loses because of it.  I’d like to get supportive wording from him in the process, though.)

Oregon has one more interesting side angle to it: they have a state income tax.  The IRS has apparently declared that they will not recognize same-sex civil marriages for purposes of couples filing jointly, presumably under the federal DOMA law.  If Oregon accepts such marriages and state income tax filings, there is then a basis to issue a court challenge to the federal DOMA law.

Updated on March 9, 2004
Since writing this, I’ve been told that the IRS says they will recognize based on what each state does.
Updated on December 20, 2010
Newsom’s order to do same-sex marriages in San Francisco was blocked by the state Supreme Court shortly after this was originally written, and his “Whether you like it or not” comment on the inevitability of same-sex marriage was used in pro-Proposition 8 campaign materials to help the amendment win.  On the flip side for his political career, he was elected Lieutenant Governor of California in November 2010.

A DOMA law was approved for Oregon in November, 2004.  In 2008, statewide domestic partner registration went into effect.

An attempt was made to overturn Washinton’s DOMA law through the courts, but the state Supreme Court rejected it (on the specious “marriage is for procreation” grounds being used to defend Proposition 8), saying that the people or the legislature need to do the overturn.  The state legislature has subsequently passed numerous domestic partner rights changes, to the point that Washington now has “everything but the word marriage”.

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