(Reuters) - Oregon will not defend a ban on gay marriage in the state, which was sued by four same-sex couples who argue the prohibition violates equality guarantees enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the state's top law enforcement official said on Thursday.
The decision by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum makes Oregon the third state in the past month to cease defense in federal court of gay marriage bans, after Nevada and Virginia, as activists fight for legalization across the United States.
"The law in this area is developing, and it is now clear that there is no rational basis for Oregon to refuse to honor the commitments made by same-sex couples in the same way it honors the commitments of opposite-sex couples," Rosenblum, a Democrat, said in announcing the move.
But it will not result in immediate legalization of gay marriage in Democratic-dominated Oregon, where a 2004 voter-approved amendment to the state constitution banned same-sex nuptials. While Oregon law bans same-sex marriages in the state, it does allow domestic partnerships and since October has recognized the marriages of same-sex couples wed elsewhere.
Opponents of gay marriage said they were disappointed with Rosenblum's move.
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, said Rosenblum "is shamefully abandoning her constitutional duty to defend the marriage amendment overwhelmingly enacted by the people of Oregon" and "She swore an oath of office that she would enforce all the laws, not just those she personally agrees with."
In all, 17 states and the District of Columbia recognize gay marriage in a trend that has gained momentum since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that legally married same-sex couples nationwide are eligible for federal benefits. The court struck down part of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act.
Since mid-December, prohibitions on same-sex marriage have been ruled unconstitutional in New Mexico, Utah and Virginia by federal judges. The Utah and Virginia decisions have been stayed pending appeal.
Oregon gay marriage backers had planned to put a repeal of the state ban before voters in November, but said they will hold the 160,000 signatures they have gathered pending the outcome of the court case.
"Now that we have done the hard work of assuring a place on the ballot and moving public opinion, we have the ability to wait for the courts to do the right thing," Oregon United for Marriage campaign manager Mike Marshall said in a statement.
(Reporting By Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Washington; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Amanda Kwan and Grant McCool)