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In Oregon, same-sex marriage ban leaves wedded couples in confusion

Status of ceremonies, benefits in jeopardy

PORTLAND, Ore. --As she watched her 3-year-old son convert a box into a spaceship, Kelly Burke was dreading the arrival of a letter that could change their lives.

The stay-at-home mother and her partner of 15 years, Dolores Doyle, are among the nearly 3,000 gay couples who wed in Oregon this spring. Now the status of those marriages, and the benefits that come with them, is unclear after Oregon voters decisively approved a ban on same-sex marriage last week.

''The mailman came this morning and I panicked," said Burke, who relies on Doyle's employer for health insurance. ''My first thought is: 'Oh my God, here comes the letter. They're cutting me off.' "

While 11 states passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage on Election Day, Oregon is the only state among them in which the government has approved same-sex marriage, albeit temporarily.

Some 2,960 gay couples tied the knot after Multnomah County momentarily flung open the door to same-sex marriage. A judge stopped the practice after six weeks, and the state has refused to acknowledge the marriages pending the outcome of a lawsuit on the constitutionality of banning same-sex marriage.

Still, some companies viewed the couples as legally married, extending benefits, such as insurance coverage, not previously available.

Before their wedding, Burke paid $200 a month out-of-pocket for her minimal insurance.

''With our marriage came a huge financial relief -- as well as huge emotional relief. I could actually sleep at night and know I'll be taken care of. That uncertainty has now crept back in," she said.

Kelly Clark, attorney for the Defense of Marriage Coalition, said many people who voted for Measure 36, the Oregon amendment to ban same-sex marriage, nonetheless feel strongly that gay couples should have an equal shot at the legal benefits of marriage.

''It's what I've felt from the beginning, and I have consistently said this to gay friends," Clark said. ''So what kind of alternatives can we craft? And whatever alternative mechanisms we find have to be fair."

The amendments in Oregon, Mississippi, and Montana do not ban civil unions, unlike the measures in eight other states that approved them Tuesday.

According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, there are roughly 2 million people in those states who live in households headed by same-sex couples and could be harmed by the amendments, including state university employees whose domestic partnership benefits could be in jeopardy in Michigan, Ohio, and Utah.

Tim Nashif, political director of the Defense of Marriage Coalition, said gay-rights groups can lobby Legislatures to extend domestic partnership benefits without changing the institution of marriage.

He called Burke's family the exception.

''You'd have to search a long way out of these 3,000 couples to find one case like this," he said. But many gay couples said they were worried about matters such as passing on their inheritance to their loved ones, adoption rights, and power-of-attorney statements. Some, including Burke, are shopping for insurance policies.

Some of the couples married in Oregon have been together for decades and are elderly, a fact that makes pensions and end-of-life arrangements a real issue.

''I don't know if there are any assisted-living facilities around that will allow us to share a room if we are not legally married," said Mary Beth Brindley, 65, who has been with her partner, Evelyn Hall, 66, for 45 years -- a relationship they kept secret for 37 years while living in the deep South. ''That's a very real concern for us."

It is unclear what the passage of Measure 36 means for the lawsuit in the Oregon Supreme Court, in which nine gay couples -- including Burke and Doyle -- claim that preventing them from marrying is unconstitutional.

The next hearing was postponed until Dec. 15 to give both sides a chance to argue what effect the amendment will have.

Oregon was home to the first court ruling in the nation to interpret a state constitution as prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In that case, the Oregon Court of Appeals required Oregon Health & Science University to extend insurance benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees.

But since that 1998 ruling, there has been little movement in the Legislature toward a clear policy on same-sex partner benefits.

''These couples stand to lose a lot," said Ken Choe, an attorney with the ACLU Gay and Lesbian Project, who will be representing the gay couples.

''Marriage brings with it hundreds of important protections for families in their times of greatest need, such as sickness and death," Choe said. ''And to the extent that these couples are deemed no longer married, they are vulnerable again."

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