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Furor and action over same-sex marriages

Weddings go on from coast to coast

Stephen Knox, left, and Eric Warshaw of Portland, Oregon, hold their children after their marriage ceremony.
Stephen Knox, left, and Eric Warshaw of Portland, Oregon, hold their children after their marriage ceremony.

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Multnomah County, Oregon begins to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples.
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With marriage becoming a possibility for gay Americans, are they feeling pressure to tie the knot?
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(CNN) -- Same-sex marriage licenses being issued from coast to coast are fueling legal arguments, lawsuits and criminal charges and one Senate opponent warned Wednesday that Americans are "gambling with our future."

In Portland, Oregon, Multnomah County officials began handing out marriage licenses Wednesday to waiting gay and lesbian couples after county attorney Agnes Sowle said refusing them would violate Oregon's ban on discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski asked the state attorney general to look into the legality of the marriages, but will not seek an injunction to stop them in the meantime, said spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn.

Attorney General Hardy Myers is expected to have an answer "within days," she said.

Couples began lining up outside the courthouse before dawn Wednesday after County Chairwoman Diane Linn ordered the county to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Many of them clutched bouquets, some had children in tow and several sang the 1964 Dixie Cups song "Chapel of Love" as they waited.

One woman, holding up her license, said she had been waiting 16 years for this day and planned to marry her partner immediately.

Myers spokesman Kevin Neely described Oregon's marriage law as "ambiguous." It defines marriage as "a civil contract entered into in person by males at least 17 years of age and females at least 17 years of age, who are otherwise capable."

Criminal charges in New York

But in New York state, where one village mayor began presiding over same-sex marriages last week and another vowed to do so Thursday, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer urged them to stop until the courts can resolve the issue. (Full story)

Spitzer said the state's marriage laws refer to unions of men and women, but they "raise important constitutional questions involving the equal protection of the laws." And he said that under state court precedent, same-sex marriages and civil unions performed in other states should be recognized in New York.

The state Health Department, where licenses are filed once a couple is married, previously told local officials not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and the mayor of New Paltz, about 75 miles north of New York City, faces misdemeanor charges of solemnizing an unlicensed marriage after presiding over 19 same-sex weddings last week.

Mayor Jason West pleaded not guilty in court Wednesday evening.

West told supporters after the hearing that same-sex marriages are an issue of civil rights.

"What we're witnessing in this country today is the largest flowering of a civil rights movement this country has seen in a generation," West said, adding that the law is gender-neutral.

Despite those charges, Nyack Mayor John Shields said he would begin solemnizing same-sex marriages Thursday.

"The phones have been ringing off the hook with people wanting to get married, some as early as tomorrow," Shields said. "I still maintain it's legal and the right thing to do."

Spitzer warned that local officials "subject themselves to potentially serious sanctions" if they ignore his advice. But he said he would leave decisions about whether to bring charges against local officials who perform same-sex marriages to local prosecutors.

The state supreme court in Massachusetts brought the issue to the forefront in November, ruling that the state had failed to identify any "constitutionally adequate reason" to forbid gay or lesbian couples to marry.

San Francisco officials began issuing same-sex wedding licenses last month under orders from Mayor Gavin Newsom, who cited the state constitutional ban against discrimination.

The issue has landed in California's Supreme Court which refused to stop or invalidate the marriages already performed. But the court gave opponents until Friday to submit legal briefs against gay marriages.

Senate mulls amendment

Last week, President Bush endorsed a constitutional amendment to restrict marriage to two people of the opposite sex but said it should leave open the possibility that states could allow civil unions.

And Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, said Wednesday that the Constitution needs to be changed to ensure that the traditional definition of marriage would not be overturned by court rulings. (Full story)

"It is clear today we must act," Frist said. "We are gambling with our future if we allow activist judges to redefine marriage for our whole society."

At a Senate judiciary subcommittee hearing on the issue, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said that although the document that frames the U.S. government "should not be amended casually ... serious people have reluctantly recognized that an amendment may be the only way to ensure the survival of traditional marriage in America."

But Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, called an amendment "unnecessary, divisive and utterly inconsistent with our constitutional traditions."

"This amendment targets a specific group of Americans and permanently excludes them from certain rights and benefits," Feingold said. "The most often discussed text for a marriage amendment would not only ban same-sex marriages, it would threaten civil union and domestic partnerships laws at the state and local levels."

He suggested the purpose of the debate was to bolster Republican political fortunes in November, calling it "a divisive political exercise in an election year, plain and simple."

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