PORTLAND, Ore. (BP)–Same-sex couples in Oregon were planning on ringing in the new year with a new domestic partnerships law, but thanks to a federal judge’s ruling, it’s conservatives in the state who are celebrating.
The law was set to go into effect Jan. 1 and would have granted homosexual couples the state legal benefits of marriage — in essence, “gay marriage” minus the name. But in the final days of 2007 U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman put the new law on hold, agreeing to hear a lawsuit on Feb. 1 brought by opponents.
Filed on behalf of 28 voters by the Alliance Defense Fund, the suit claims state and county officials illegally tossed out signatures from a petition that, if successful, would have given voters the opportunity to overturn the law. The state in early October ruled conservatives fell approximately 100 signatures short of the 55,179 valid signatures needed.
The judge’s ruling was a big win for conservatives who are accustomed to fighting but losing political battles in the left-leaning state.
“We were pleasantly surprised,” Steve Schenewerk, pastor of Community Baptist Church in Winston, Ore., and an opponent of the law, told Baptist Press.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat, signed the bill into law last May, and opponents soon began gathering signatures in an attempt to force a vote on the law and reverse it — a unique feature to Oregon and a handful of other states. They turned in more than 60,000 signatures, but state and county officials ruled they fell just short.
All 28 voters in the lawsuit say their signatures were valid but wrongly rejected.
“We’re asking that a valid signature be counted,” ADF attorney Dale Schowengerdt told Baptist Press. “America is founded on the principle of government of the people, by the people and for the people. We’re simply asking that if a valid signature was excluded that it be counted.”
Although 28 signatures may seem insufficient to overcome a 96-vote deficit, it actually is plenty, thanks to the statistical sampling method used by Oregon. When determining the validity of signatures, Oregon does not look at each and every signature in a stack of 60,000 signatures. Instead, in this case it used two computer-generated samples of signatures, and then sent them to local counties for verification, The Register-Guard newspaper in Eugene reported. Those local officials determined that 54 signatures didn’t match the signatures on the voter registration cards, and they then tossed out another 47 signatures from voters who were considered “inactive” because they had not voted in the past five years or because their information had not been updated, The Register-Guard said. Extrapolated out, those 101 signatures led to the state tossing out 2,020 signatures. The state already had tossed out some signatures because forms were not filled out properly.
“Our plaintiffs were people who had signed the petition and their signatures were excluded for not matching, and many of them went to county clerks offices within this 30-day verification period and asked for their signature to be counted,” Schowengerdt said. “They said, ‘This is me. I signed the petition. Please count my signature.’ And [officials] refused.”
The method violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection, Schowengerdt said, because Oregon treats signatures on voter ballots and signatures on petitions differently. In Oregon, all voting is done by mail. If officials believe a signature on the ballot does not match the one on record, the voter is notified and given the opportunity to rectify the problem. No such provision exists for petitions, he said, violating also the constitutional guarantee of due process.
“There’s no dispute that these were valid signatures — that people who signed them were valid and registered voters,” he said. “They should have been counted. The only question is whether Oregon has a right to an accurate and fair process, and the state is arguing that they have the authority to exclude these signatures even through they’re valid.”
Schenewerk, the pastor, fears the law would inhibit religious freedom.
“There is a concern about what will be taught in our public schools [if the law goes into effect],” he said. “We’ve talked as pastors about the impact it might have on us, if a gay couple comes to a church and says, ‘We want to get married,’ and we say no, then are we liable for civil rights violations? Not that it’s likely, but on the other hand you can’t rule it out. It could happen down the road.”
Oregon would become the seventh state to grant homosexual couples the legal benefits of marriage, joining California, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont and Massachusetts, the latter of which is the only one to allow “gay marriage.” Other states, such as Maine and Washington, grant some of the benefits.
Mosman, the judge, was nominated by President Bush in 2003.
Michael Foust is assistant editor of Baptist Press.