PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Oregon's ban on same-sex marriage might be overturned before voters receive their ballots this fall.
A federal judge in Eugene on Wednesday decided to consolidate two lawsuits alleging Oregon's ban violates the U.S. Constitution. Judge Michael McShane, an Obama appointee, set oral arguments for April 23.
Portland attorneys Lake Perriguey and Lea Ann Easton filed a lawsuit in October on behalf of two women in a relationship for more than 30 years. Two months later, the American Civil Liberties Union and lawyers from two firms went to court on behalf of a lesbian couple and a gay couple.
Perriguey opposed a motion to combine the lawsuits, concerned it would delay a ruling. The lawyers who filed the December lawsuit supported consolidation, saying the cases present the same legal issues and it wouldn't significantly prolong the outcome.
As the court case moves forward, the campaign to win marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples announced this week it has collected more than 127,000 petition signatures. Organizers only need to collect 116,284 valid signatures by July 3 to make the November ballot.
In 2004, voters by a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent voted to amend the Oregon constitution to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Campaign organizers hope to make Oregon the first state to vote out a constitutional amendment that bans gay marriage.
David Fidanque, executive director of the Oregon chapter of the ACLU, said a potential court victory would not lessen the importance of the 2014 election.
"We're committed to bringing (gay) marriage to Oregon as quickly as possible and doing it in a way that permanently solves the problem," he said. "And that's why we're pursuing the parallel tracks of the court action and the ballot measure. It's important to get the constitutional ban out of the state constitution even if the litigation is successful."
The lawsuits contend the state ban subjects same-sex couples to second-class status and deprives them and their children of the dignity and legal protections given to other Oregon families. Similar arguments have been made in lawsuits filed across the United States.
Federal judges in Oklahoma and Utah recently overturned bans on same-sex marriage, but those decisions are being appealed.
Fidanque said the possibility of an appeal is another reason why the ACLU hopes same-sex marriage is successful at the ballot box, even if McShane sides with the plaintiffs.
"Judging by what's happening in the federal cases in other states, the paths through the courts are serpentine and unknowable in terms of final outcome," he said.