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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 March, 2004, 16:17 GMT
Oregon county bans all marriages
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom stands between newlyweds
Same sex marriages in San Francisco have caused controversy
Confused by the twists and turns of the US gay marriage issue, Oregon's Benton County has decided to err on the side of caution and ban all weddings.

Until the state decides who can and cannot wed, officials in the county have said no-one can marry - even heterosexual couples.

They hit upon the plan to ensure that none of the county's 79,000 residents are subject to unfair treatment.

Gay marriage has proved controversial, deeply dividing US public opinion.

Lawsuit threat

The last Benton County marriage licences were issued on Tuesday and, from now on, any locals wanting to get hitched will have to go elsewhere.

"We are happy Benton County is not going to violate the law by issuing illegal marriage licenses, but we are perplexed as to why they would not issue legal licenses
Tim Nashif, Defense of Marriage Coalition
"It may seem odd, but we need to treat everyone in our county equally," county commissioner Linda Modrell told Reuters.

The county had initially decided to start issuing marriage licenses to gay couples from Monday, but they reversed that decision in the face of a flurry of lawsuits across the US relating to the issue.

It is unlikely any wedding planners will be going bankrupt over the decision however, as the country only issues about 20 marriage licenses a week, and it is just a short drive over the county line for couples eager to tie the knot.

Last bastion of support

The decision has found favour with pro-gay marriage activists who argue that at least it sends a clear message that everyone is entitled to equal rights:

"It is certainly a different way for county commissioners to respect their constitutional obligation to apply the law equally to everyone," said Rebekah Kassell, a spokeswoman for Basic Rights Oregon.

"We appreciate that they are willing to say they are not going to participate in discrimination."

Gay marriage supporters
The issue has sparked nation-wide protests
But anti-gay marriage campaigners are not impressed:

"We are happy Benton County is not going to violate the law by issuing illegal marriage licenses, but we are perplexed as to why they would not issue legal licenses," said Tim Nashif, spokesman for the Defense of Marriage Coalition.

"Oregon not only has the only county in the nation issuing illegal (same-sex) marriage licenses, we probably have the only county in the nation refusing to issue marriage licenses at all."

Oregon's most populous county, Multnomah County, is the only jurisdiction in the US that is still issuing licenses for same-sex marriages, handing out 2,550 licenses since 3 March.

Local governments from California to New York have stopped issuing gay marriage licenses after being hit with a spate of law suits and protests.

The issue has prompted President George W Bush to call for a constitutional amendment defining marriage in traditional terms.

"Marriage between a man and a woman is the ideal," Mr Bush has said. "And the job of the president is to drive policy toward the ideal."

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