Aug 12, 2005
Volume 33
Issue 32

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Oregon civil union and non-discrimination bill falters in Republican controlled House
Oregon civil union and non-discrimination bill falters in Republican controlled House
by Robert Raketty - SGN Staff Writer

Republican Party political maneuvering has denied Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Oregonians their civil rights - at least for the next two years - according to proponents of anti-discrimination and civil union legislation. The Oregon legislature adjourned Friday, August 5, after a grueling seven month lobbying effort by Basic Rights Oregon, a pro-LGBT advocacy organization, and its religious, corporate and non-profit partners.

"Legislation that protects and recognizes all Oregon families and ensures that all Oregonians can live, work and travel in the state of Oregon free from discrimination is long overdue," said Basic Rights Oregon Executive Director Roey Thorpe in a written statement. "The Oregon legislature missed an enormous opportunity this session to take a strong moral stand against discrimination. That the session ended without civil unions or anti-discrimination protections is nothing less than an outrage."

The effort to pass a bill creating civil unions for same-sex couples in Oregon and prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment, public accommodations, public services and higher education, began with the introduction of Senate Bill 1000. The bill had the backing of a bipartisan group of Senators from across the state and had been requested by Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

During the session, BRO's massive lobbying effort included over 50,000 emails and phone calls; hundreds of pieces of written testimony and hours of oral testimony; and thousands of Oregonians - from every legislative district in the state - who came to that state's capitol building. In July, the Oregon Senate passed SB 1000 and the bill looked likely to pass in the House.

However, House Speaker Karen Minnis (R-Wood Village) had other plans for the legislation. After having been accused of obstructing the legislation by House Democrats, she called a State Federal Affairs Committee work session - with only 37 minutes notice - during a lunch hour when both chambers of the legislature were not in session. During the session, the committee gutted SB 1000; inserted Republican backed language; and sent the bill to the Budget Committee where it would be untouchable by Democrats.

"There are a number of legislators who believe that it is the most extreme political maneuvering to circumvent a public debate and vote that they have ever seen in their tenure in the legislature," Rebekah Kassell, a BRO spokesperson, told the Seattle Gay News on July 28. "I think that there are a number of Republican legislators who aren't necessarily with us on the bill, but are not particularly fond of the methods the speaker used."

In an effort to revive the legislation, Rep. Mary Nolan (D-Portland) introduced House Bill 3508. The bill was similar to SB 1000, but included "reciprocal benefits" for unmarried people who do not enter into a civil union or marriage. "This new bill is not a symbolic effort.& We're giving the Speaker of the House one more chance to do the right thing," Nolan had said about her bill in a written statement last month. "This bill is one final call to the Speaker of the House, asking her to schedule an up-or-down vote on a critical civil rights issue; the issue of civil unions and discrimination."

However, Minnis continued to use extraordinary measures to hinder the legislation. She suspended a 140-year-old rule, which allows a majority of legislators in the House to bring a bill to the floor for a vote, just one day before the Speaker was required to assign the bill to a committee. The move effectively killed any chances for the bill to be approved by the end of the session.

"Speaker Minnis flagrantly abused our democracy to preserve discrimination and protect prejudice," said Thorpe. "All Oregonians ought to be concerned by her willful determination to subvert the public process and the will of a majority of fair-minded Oregonians and legislators who support civil unions and believe discrimination is wrong."

BRO is weighing its options, which could include taking the civil-unions and non-discrimination directly to voters through the initiative process and targeting 2006 legislative races. Although that strategy could be costly and divisive, according to Thorpe, opinion polls show growing public support for civil unions. A spokesperson for The Defense of Marriage Coalition, which opposed the bills, said it would seek to defeat any initiative that sought to extend civil unions or prohibit discrimination against LGBT people.

"If this legislation does not pass, we have to go back two years from now and try to persuade the legislature to once again prohibit discrimination and to create civil unions for same-sex couples and their families," said Kassell. "Inevitably - as they have in the past and as they are now - people will be hurt by discrimination and a lack of protection for their families at a critical moment in need until this legislation is passed. We don't think it is in the best interest of Oregon to allow this kind of legal discrimination and lack of fairness under the law to continue any longer."


1. Rep. Mary Nolan (D-Portland) - fighting for equality

2. House Speaker Karen Minnis (R-Wood Village) - flagrantly abusing our democracy to preserve discrimination
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