PORTLAND, Ore. — When Jackie Yerby and a small band of devout Catholics go to the cathedral for Mass this Ash Wednesday, they will be sending an unmistakable message. Pinned to their lapels will be big white buttons that proclaim, "Catholic Oregonians for Marriage Equality."

The newly formed group wants to show that "just because we're Catholic doesn't mean we don't support same-sex marriage," said Yerby, who served on the board of Catholic Charities of Portland for six years. "We support same-sex marriage because we are Catholic."

Just three weeks ago, Portland Archbishop Andrew K. Sample told his staff via email that the Roman Catholic Church in the state would be joining a coalition called Protect Marriage Oregon to fight the effort to legalize same-sex marriage here.


FOR THE RECORD:
Oregon and gay marriage: In the March 2 Section A, an article about the debate over same-sex marriage in Oregon gave Portland Archbishop Alexander K. Sample's first name as Andrew. —

The kickoff to one of Catholicism's most sacred seasons is also a crucial time in the battle over legalizing same-sex marriage in the only state on the West Coast where gay and lesbian couples cannot wed.

As an increasing number of same-sex marriage bans are struck down in the courts, organizers on both sides of the issue have been working to get measures ready for the November ballot. Oregon is poised to be the only state to vote on the issue this year.

Oregon voters passed Measure 36 a decade ago, amending the state constitution to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

Proponents of same-sex marriage have gathered enough signatures to place a measure on the ballot to overturn that definition and "recognize and protect the right to marry" for all — if the courts here don't accomplish that end first.

At the same time, opponents of gay marriage are working on a measure — a narrower version of the one vetoed last week by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer — that would exempt florists, bakers, photographers and others from "participating in same-sex ceremonies in violation of deeply held religious beliefs."

And so "freedom to marry" is rubbing up against "protecting religious freedom" here in one of the least religious states in the country. It's also a place where 1st Amendment protections under state law are stronger than those offered by the U.S. Constitution. Oregon voters have also cast ballots dozens of times on measures that largely would have denied legal protections for gays and lesbians.

Oregon is more complicated than liberal, locavore, craft-brew-loving Portland suggests, and there are few better windows into that complexity than the issue of gay rights and same-sex marriage.

"Oregon in many respects has been fairly tolerant," said George T. Nicola, a historian with the Gay and Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest. "We have four LGBT people who hold elected office on a statewide level.... There's a small town south of Portland with a transgender mayor."

But starting in 1978, Nicola said, there have been an estimated 35 ballot measures, local or statewide, that have attempted to circumscribe the rights of gays and lesbians. In 1992, statewide Measure 9 proposed a constitutional amendment to "prohibit government promotion, encouragement or facilitation of homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism and masochism."

Voters rejected that one. Though not all of the 35 measures passed and some were later overturned by a state anti-discrimination law, Nicola called their mere presence on ballots significant.

"And I can't imagine any state having as many as than that," Nicola said. Their supporters "were able to go to these small towns and counties and get these things through."

But Teresa Harke, spokeswoman for Friends of Religious Freedom, bristles at the idea that the "Protect Religious Freedom Initiative" discriminates against gays and lesbians.

"Our bill is very narrow," Harke said. "It only creates a religious protection for individuals who do not want to participate in same-sex ceremonies.... All other nondiscrimination laws would remain intact."

The proposed initiative, which is aimed at the November ballot, is in the process of receiving its official title from the secretary of state's office. Once that is complete, supporters can begin collecting the required 85,000 or so signatures needed to get the measure before voters.