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Anderson-Murray Civil Rights Bill likely to pass the House on Friday
Anderson-Murray Civil Rights Bill likely to pass the House on Friday
House hearing draws emotional testimony from both sides

The Anderson-Murray Civil Rights Bill (HB 2661) is expected to pass out of the Washington State House of Representatives today, after heated floor debate between Republicans, who largely oppose the measure, and Democrats, who widely support it.

The bill, which as languished in Olympia for three decades, would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. State law already prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, age, disability, religion, marital status and other factors.

On Tuesday, the House Government Operations and Accountability Committee heard emotional testimony from people on both sides of the issue. "I think that the committee heard a really strong message from the Gay and Lesbian community and our supporters," State Rep. Ed Murray (D-Seattle) told the Seattle Gay News this week. "I think they also heard a pretty scary message from the far-right, who spent the better part of two hours vilifying Gay and Lesbian people.

"I think that the people who testified on our side where absolutely outstanding: James Kelly of the Urban League and Marilyn Cass, who talked about being a mother and a Catholic. We also had a Methodist Minister and a representative of Hewlett-Packard. They were all reasonable and great. I thought that there side decided to return to the worst sort of bigotry and vilification against Gay and Lesbian people that I have ever seen."

Murray, who is Gay, told the committee that the issue was not about quotas, affirmative action or marriage. "It is about citizens of this state who work hard and pay their taxes. Some are serving in Iraq today. This bill asks that they be treated fairly," he testified. "Business in this state supports this bill, because they realize it creates an atmosphere of tolerance and respect that attracts businesses and employees."

Major companies, including Boeing, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft and Nike sent a letter last week to Governor Christine Gregoire and the leaders of both party's in the House and Senate. Hewlett Packard's Dan Coyne was on hand at Tuesday's hearing to deliver the message personally.

Equal Rights Washington, a statewide advocacy organization for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community organized the letter effort and provided a copy of it to the SGN. "We are a group of businesses that are proud to have employees and operations in Washington State and across the United States," the letter reads. "We believe our commitment goes beyond the obligation to provide the highest quality products and services. It includes a commitment to support our employees, our customers and our communities."

Mark Rupp, Office of the Governor; Reverand Elaine Stanovsky, United Methodist Church; James Kelley, Seattle Urban League; Marylin Cass, Catholic Parents of Gays and Lesbians; Pat Tassoni, Tenants Union; Marc Brenman, Washington State Human Rights Commission; and Marsha Botzer, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, also testified in support of the bill.

"For those individuals and groups who see the Gay and Lesbian members of our communities as a threat, look again and see the constellation of parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters and friends who stand behind them," said Cass. "You also judge and discriminate against us."

Those testifying against the measure, believed the bill would create a special status for Gays, would be bad for business or is contrary to biblical law.

"This is not the same as the efforts in the civil rights era to stamp out discrimination against race and other historically protected groups," Seattle attorney Steve O'Ban testified. "This is behavior-based classification."

Bob Higley, a lobbyist for the right-wing group Faith and Freedom Network, told the committee that passing the Anderson-Murray Civil Rights Bill would be "detrimental to the culture."

"We don't believe it is a good law," said Higley. "We'd like the committee to consider what has happened around the world where the homosexual agenda has been adopted."

Committee Chairperson Rep. Kathy Haigh (D-Shelton) interrupted several speakers who used pejorative language, such as "Sodomites." She also cut off a woman who read from the Bible during her testimony.

The hearing came only one day after Rev. Ken Hutcherson, pastor of Antioch Bible Church, announced a nationwide boycott of the corporations who support the measure. Hutcherson made a similar threat against Microsoft last year and claims that the company agreed to drop its support of the bill as a result. The company is again backing the measure this year.

The Religious Coalition for Equality, Faith Forward and ADL held a protest last month outside Lake Washington High School in Kirkland, the site where Antioch Bible Church and its anti-Gay pastor hold services every Sunday to counter Hutcherson's efforts.

On Monday, January 23rd, thousands of people of faith will hold a rally on the steps of the state Capitol to show their support for the bill. The Religious Coalition for Equality and ERW has partnered to put on the event, which will include advocacy workshops and meetings with legislators. Murray, Gregoire, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown (D-Spokane) and State Rep. Fred Jarrett (R-Mercer Island) are scheduled to address the crowd.

"I really look forward to having everyone here on Equality Day," said Murray. "We are reaching a historic point, where we have the best chance we have ever had to pass this bill. We need to be working very hard. People need to be calling their legislators, writing letters and asking people in their lives to do the same. We could finally - after 30 years - see victory."

The state House had passed the bill 61-37 last year. Six Republicans joined 55 Democrats to pass the measure. However, the bill failed by a single vote in the Senate. Last week, Sen. Bill Finkbeiner (R-Kirkland), who voted against the legislation last year, said he would support the bill this year.

"Seeing a lot of opposition to this bill sort of opened my eyes to the reality that there is an unhealthy level of discrimination that exists in attitudes the people had in opposing the bill. So, that was a big reason," Finkbeiner told the SGN last week. "The other reason is that - to some degree - this issue had been used as a political football by both parties to firm up their base. I think that is really unfortunate. I didn't want to be a part of that anymore."

Republicans enjoyed a one-vote edge last year, because Democratic Sens. Tim Sheldon (D-Potlatch) and Jim Hargrove (D-Hoquiam) joined them in voting to defeat the measure. Finkbeiner's decision theoretically gives the Democrats the one vote they need to pass the bill out of the Senate.

However, a marriage equality decision from the Supreme Court could complicate things for the bill. Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander cast a shadow over the measure last week after telling the Associated Press that he would like to see the state's highest court release its decision before the end of the current legislative session.

"I am not sure how it would affect the legislation, which is why it gives me pause when he makes a remark like that," Bill Dubay, Seattle organizer for DontAmend.com and longtime marriage equality advocate told the SGN last week. "It seems like we are closer than we have ever been to finally passing this bill, especially with the announcement by Sen. Finkbeiner who gives us the one vote that we need. With a decision coming down like that, it could really upset the applecart... Personally, I was hoping for a decision after the session."

The Faith and Freedom Network recently released their poll of 405 registered voters. The poll, which carried a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent, showed support for marriage equality at 35 percent statewide. In Seattle, 62 percent of respondents favored marriage for same-sex couples. Opponents of the antidiscrimination bill have claimed it will lead to marriage for same-sex couples, while proponents of the legislation see the two issues as unrelated.

ERW's own polling on the discrimination issue found that 71 percent of Washington residents support nondiscrimination legislation. Lake Research Partners polled 600 voters and said the results carry a statistical margin of error of 4.9 percent.

The bill is expected to go to the Senate next week, where it is likely to face significant hurdles. Murray said that even if the bill where to become law, an repeal effort is possible. "We face a challenge in getting it out of the Senate; ensuring we have all the votes. That is not a sure thing," he said. "We could also face an initiative& or referendum to repeal it."

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