Same-sex Oregon couples flock to Clark County to wed

Their state now recognizes all legal out-of-state marriages

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

Portlanders Grant Edwards and Jim McPartland "waited and waited" to get married.

They'd been living together for seven years. They wanted the world to know about their solid commitment. The only obstacle was a maddeningly simple one: according to state law that's been affirmed by popular referendum, you can't get married in Oregon if you're gay.

In late October, Edwards and McPartland stopped waiting. Jim has suffered some health scares recently, and the couple want to be sure Grant has no problem holding his beloved's hand during any future hospital stay. So they went ahead and got their wedding license — in Clark County.

That's because Oregon recently doubled back on itself by deciding, as a matter of practicality, to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

To learn more

Reconciling Ministries Network, a grass-roots project of gay-friendly United Methodists.

ReconcilingWorks, a grass-roots project of gay-friendly Lutherans.

"Oregon agencies must recognize all out-of-state marriages for the purposes of administering state programs," chief operating officer Michael Jordon wrote in a memo, based on a legal opinion by the state Department of Justice. "That includes legal, same-sex marriages performed in other states and countries."

That means you still can't have a legal gay wedding in Oregon, but you can step over the border to Washington to get the job done and then step back again, truly as hitched as hitched can be. It's pretty tortured legal logic, the couple pointed out: the kind of tail-chasing that once inspired a Charles Dickens character to label the law "a ass."

"We just think it's crazy that we have to go to the state of Washington and legally get married, and now Oregon will recognize that marriage. And yet, gay Oregonians cannot get married in their own churches and have that recognized by the state. That is some bizarre law," McPartland said.

Bizarre or just businesslike, the new legal loophole amounts to a bistate bridge that's carrying loads of same-sex couples across the border from hoping to hitched. Clark County marriage license applications jumped by nearly 50 percent in the 12 business days after Oregon's Oct. 18 legal decision, according to a hand count by The Columbian. Two-thirds of all licenses after that day were for same-sex couples and 90 percent of those were from out of state -- the vast majority from Oregon.

Many of those couples, like Edwards and McPartland, eventually tie the knot at a church that's made a name for itself as a same-sex wedding destination: the First Congregational United Church of Christ on Northeast 68th Street.

'Let's do it in Vancouver'

The moment the Oregon decision went public, church administrator Kate Woolley started fielding a steady stream of calls from same-sex Oregon couples. For the past few weeks, Woolley said, she's been taking wedding bookings for nothing but same-sex, out-of-state couples.

"Many of them are from UCC churches in Oregon who still can't get married there," said the Rev. Brooks Berndt. "But not all of them. A number don't have any particular religious affiliation but know they do want to get married in a Christian church."

Edwards and McPartland are a committed UCC couple. Edwards has been organist at Portland's First Congregational United Church of Christ for 18 years, he said.

"We've both been heavily involved in Christian churches our entire lives," he said. "Jim grew up Catholic, and that's very important to him. I grew up in several religious backgrounds and found the UCC church because it was so welcoming."

They didn't like the idea of separate wedding ceremonies aimed at satisfying separate authorities — that is, the state of Oregon and the eyes of God. "We didn't want to have two events, and we didn't think just having it at the courthouse was very romantic," said Edwards. What was romantic, they decided, was having a real church wedding on their anniversary, Nov. 9.

Of course that means their anniversary will forever follow Election Day, the first Tuesday in November, and on Election Day 2014, the voters of Oregon will face the gay marriage question again. The couple considered the nearness of the two dates, and whatever political statement they might or might not be making — and then decided to forget about all that.

"We were like, who cares what the state of Oregon says?" said Edwards. "We want to do this on our anniversary. Let's do it in Vancouver."

On Nov. 9, Edwards and McPartland were legally wed at the First Congregational United Church of Christ by the Rev. Sara Rosenau, of their Portland UCC church. What they intended to be a humble, simple, come-as-you-are affair eventually drew more than 50 guests, a few of whom stepped forward to read passages from the Old and New Testaments, "Cosmos" by Carl Sagan, poetry by e.e. cummings and a tiny verse by Lee Ann Brown called "After Sappho":

So many people

advised me against you.

How glad I am

we could not resist.

Those brief, apropos lines drew a burst of delighted laughter from the guests, and one call of "Praise the Lord!"

Fulfillment

Berndt has worked hard to boost his church's long-standing visibility as a gay-friendly institution. An activist by nature, he led his congregation on a march all the way from Vancouver to Olympia to demonstrate support in the run-up to the November 2012 popular vote that legalized same-sex marriage in Washington.

"We've been a welcoming church for 21 years," said Berndt, who was hired as pastor six years ago. "One of the primary roles we've had is as a place of refuge. But now we're not just a place of refuge, we're a place of celebration. It is affirming and joyful to see the fruition of what we've been advocating for many years. It's a real sense of fulfillment."

Some Oregonians bring in their own pastors to perform their weddings, Berndt said. For others, he's happy to do the job. In preparation, he goes through the usual ritual of reaching out to the couple for a little prenuptial chat, but because many of these couples have been together for many years — if not decades — he is regularly humbled during these stabs at "pre-marriage counseling," he said.

Vancouver OK in gay friendliness

• Vancouver scored 66 out of 100 points in a rating of American cities and their gay inclusiveness by Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest civil rights organization focused on gay rights. Released recently, the 2013 Municipal Equality Index rated 291 cities across the nation and six in Washington state, based on their municipal laws, employment practices, city leadership and more.

• Vancouver earned points for reporting anti-gay hate crimes to the FBI and for nondiscrimination laws and recognition of same-sex marriages (which are actually state laws, not city); it earned low points as a gay-friendly employer.

• The average score for Washington cities was 82 out of 100 points, which falls well above the national average of 57. Seattle scored 100 points, Vashon scored 95, Tacoma scored 90, Spokane scored 71 and Olympia scored 67.

Gay marriage breaking county records

• October has always been a down month for marriage license applications, according to the Clark County Auditor's Office. Cheery midsummer months typically draw marriage license applications in the 300 range; September generally dips to the low 200s, and October usually is in the mid-100s. For example, 157 couples applied for marriage licenses in Clark County in October 2012.

• Gay marriage has made a major difference. According to a Columbian count of one month of marriage license applications — with Oct. 18, the date Oregon's latest legal decision went public, exactly in the middle — 456 marriage license applications came in from Oct. 3 to Nov. 4. Of those, nearly two-thirds were for same-sex couples (292, or 64 percent).

• Paul Harris, the recording manager at the Clark County Auditor's Office, said his office does not track marriage license statistics by gender, but, "We have noticed a sharp increase in marriage licenses when Oregon decided to recognize legal marriages performed in Washington."

• Overall, marriage license applications in Clark County have set monthly records every month since Washington's law legalizing same-sex marriage took effect on Dec. 6, 2012.

"Some of them have been together for 40 years," he said. "It's more like they could teach me a thing or two about having a happy, healthy, married life. They are role models."

Some couples start out intent only upon a brief, businesslike ceremony that gets them over a legal hurdle, Berndt said — but as the reality approaches, "it does get more personal, more sacred. It gets to be a teary affair. They rewrite their vows. It is a real peak moment in people's lives."

'Reconciling' and risk

The UCC church in Hazel Dell isn't the only one welcoming same-sex weddings. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Vancouver hosted five same-sex weddings from August through October, according to secretary and rental coordinator Donna Aase, and now has six more scheduled through the end of the year.

"Those are all same-sex couples, and starting with September, all are from Oregon," she said. More have inquired, she said, and most have mentioned the Oregon decision as a motivator to tie the knot now.

The Vancouver Heights United Methodist Church on MacArthur Boulevard has been a "welcoming and affirming" congregation for 17 years, according to the Rev. Denise Neuschwander, and after Washington law opened up to same-sex marriage last year, it voted to approve same-sex weddings in its own sanctuary. According to its website, the church has been a member of the "Reconciling Ministries Network" for years.

"Reconciling" is a term that's gaining popularity with Methodist and Lutheran congregations that endorse an official policy of gay friendliness. The word comes from the "ministry of reconciliation" mentioned in The New Testament, 2 Corinthians 5:18.

"We look at it as total inclusion," Neuschwander said. "When you are not including everyone, you are not living up to Scripture."

That still goes against official church doctrine, Neuschwander said. A 2012 conference of United Methodist clergy voted to retain language in the church's Book of Discipline calling homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching," she pointed out — and just last week, a Pennsylvania Methodist minister was convicted of breaking church law for performing a gay marriage in his church. He was suspended for 30 days and could be defrocked if he violates church law again during that time.

"United Methodist churches that have made this decision are taking a risk, and United Methodist ministers are putting our ordination on the line by performing same-sex marriages," Neuschwander said.

After the 2012 conference, Neuschwander said, a backlash movement called Biblical Obedience arose. That movement holds that church rules are a lower authority than the Bible itself, and sometimes require what's essentially civil disobedience -- such as performing same-sex marriages in the church even when the Book of Discipline forbids it.

"The law of the church is not sacred, as the Bible is," she said. "Sometimes, we are called to disobey that law in order to obey God's law. Many of us have taken on that 'Biblical Obedience' terminology as to why."

There have been a few inquiries about same-sex weddings at the Vancouver Heights church, she said, but "nobody from Oregon is beating down my door to get married." That's probably a simple matter of publicity and reputation, she said. "This is pretty new for us. We haven't gone, 'Hey look at us, hey look at us.' As time goes on, word of mouth will get around."

Other progressive local churches are eager participate, too, but first they've got to take care of that internal "reconciling" housekeeping — which usually means soul-searching meetin gs and discussions, followed by an official vote.

"We are in process of becoming a 'Reconciling in Christ' church," said administrative assistant Mariellen Harmick of the Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church on East Mill Plain. "We've always been progressive, but we don't have that label yet and we have not been able to do gay marriages in the sanctuary," she said. Former Beautiful Savior pastor Rick Jaech — who was recently promoted to bishop of the Southwest Washington Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — used to go elsewhere to perform such marriages, she said.

Still other progressive churches are sticking with rules that block visitors from just booking the building and renting the pastor. The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Vancouver's Ellsworth neighborhood is pointedly gay friendly, and made news a few years ago by hiring an associate priest who is a lesbian — but church leader the Rev. Tom Warne said he's only performed one gay wedding in the past year.

"You have to be a member of the parish first," Warne said. "That's our situation here. I'm not interested in fast-food weddings. You need to make this your spiritual home.

"We don't use the word 'reconciling,'" he added. "I've heard about that, but I just tell people we stick with our sign on the boulevard, which welcomes YOU. There's no asterisk. YOU means everyone. I don't have any agenda. We don't fly a flag."

Comments for this story have been disabled.