Tuesday's decision by Multnomah County Circuit Judge Frank Bearden marked the first time in the nation that a judge has recognized gay marriage. An immediate appeal of the ruling was expected.
"These are the first legally recognized gay marriages in the country," said Dave Fidanque, the ACLU executive director in Oregon. "In no other same-sex marriages that have taken place has there been a court order saying the state must recognize them. That's what's truly historic about this opinion."
Multnomah County began allowing gay marriage on March 3, making it the only place in the United States where gays could get married during the last month. The county has issued 3,022 marriage licenses to gay couples.
Other cities, including San Francisco and New Paltz, New York, also began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples but were stopped by the courts in early March.
Bearden told the county to cease issuing same-sex licenses until the Oregon Legislature has a chance to fashion a new law, perhaps allowing Vermont-style civil unions.
He gave the Oregon Legislature 90 days from the start of its next session to come up with the new law. If that doesn't happen, Multnomah County can resume issuing marriage licenses to gays and lesbians.
The Legislature could convene in Salem as early as June, for a special session that was intended to focus on tax reform. But the ruling generated little enthusiasm among lawmakers, who seem leery about getting bogged down in a stalemated special session this summer.
"They don't want to get into special session that is out of control," said Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat who supports civil unions.
House Speaker Karen Minnis, a Republican who opposes gay marriage, said the debate should focus not on allowing civil unions but instead on sending a gay marriage ban to the ballot this fall.
"The best solution would be to amend the state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman — the definition of marriage that Oregonians have known for generations," she said.
The judge's ruling came in a lawsuit that has consolidated all the arguments over same-sex unions in hopes of a quick ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court.
The decision effectively ends gay marriage nationally, at least until May 17, when Massachusetts is slated to begin allowing gay marriage following a high court ruling there.
Kevin Neely, a spokesman for the Oregon attorney general's office, called Bearden's decision "a big step in what will be a bit longer process."
"Our goal from the beginning was to get a ruling from the Supreme Court, but this initial ruling does provide at least some clarity and a framework for moving to that next step," Neely said. "The real key here is to give the Legislature an opportunity to craft a law that the courts will deem constitutionally sound."
In other developments related to gay marriage, a California state legislative committee Tuesday approved a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in the state, although the bill's sponsor, Mark Leno, said such a "milestone event" didn't change what will be an uphill battle to pass it in the full legislature.