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Could We Be Less Progressive?

Conservatives Score Another Easy Victory Against Gay Rights

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It was clear last week who really holds the power at the state capitol.

Standing with a few hundred demonstrators, Governor Ted Kulongoski demanded on Wednesday for state representatives to vote on Senate Bill 1000--the notorious legislation that would legalize civil unions as well as provide anti-discrimination protections for gays and lesbians.

Already approved by the Senate, SB1000 has languished in the House of Representatives, thanks to staunchly conservative House Speaker Karen Minnis (R-Wood Village), who has refused to put the matter to a vote. Activists have claimed the bill would pass the House (and become law) if Minnis would only allow state representatives the chance to vote. But Minnis has roundly rejected those requests and, for the past few weeks, shelved the matter.

However, last Thursday morning--the day following Gov. Kulongoski's plea for action--Minnis finally did something about SB1000. Minnis sent the bill to the State and Federal Affairs Committee--not coincidentally, the very same committee that's been sitting for months on HB3476, the so-called "anti-civil unions" bill. Supported by the Oregon Family Council (who supported Measure 36), HB3476 provides a few paltry legal benefits to any couple that is "prohibited from marrying." That compromise would be something far shy of even civil unions.

Within an hour of being assigned SB1000, the committee performed what is known as a "gut and stuff" operation; that is, they removed nearly every word of SB1000 and replaced it with the language of HB3476. Technical language aside, the actions killed any real hope for civil unions in Oregon.

The defeat rounds out a trifecta of victories for conservatives: First, they passed Measure 36; second, they won a Supreme Court decision striking down a constitutional challenge for same-sex marriages; and, now, they have easily pushed back efforts to legalize civil unions.

The tactics employed by Minnis may be infuriating to civil rights activists, but they should not be surprising. Tim Nashif and the OFC have spent months shoring up support among the conservative members of the House--including, apparently, Minnis herself.

Meanwhile, gay and lesbian rights supporters spun their wheels, lollygagging for six months before finally demanding a vote on SB1000 in the Senate. And then, when the bill did pass the Democratic-led Senate, Basic Rights Oregon acted like judges at the Special Olympics--where everyone gets a trophy just for showing up--and trumpeted the Senate support of the bill as a landmark moment. Likewise, Kulongoski has been lauded for taking a leadership position on the bill, even though his public involvement has amounted to little more than a few vague words in speeches you could count on one hand.

But now that Minnis has handed BRO its third major defeat in less than a year, it is a critical time for a reevaluation of the tactics to push forward equality.

Sure, the legislature can take up the issue again next session--but that is a year and a half from now and, even then, progressives would need to wrest control of the House from Republicans and Minnis.

Another solution would be for BRO and its allies to aim for ballot measures establishing civil unions and statewide anti-discrimination protections. Despite the passage of Measure 36 by a margin of 57-43, according to at least one survey there is more support than opposition for civil unions among Oregon residents.

Additionally, BRO still has its court challenge to the Measure 36 amendment on technical grounds--although it may take years before it bounces its way up to the state's highest court.

Finally, it may be up to city leaders--in Portland as well as other cities--to pick up the fight for legal protections that are being refused at a state level. For instance, the city councils of Bend and Beaverton last year approved anti-discrimination measures within their jurisdictions. Portland is also poised to introduce an Equal Benefits Ordinance that would require all businesses with city contracts to provide health benefits to same-sex partners of employees.

Currently, City Commissioner Sam Adams has opted to delay an introduction of the proposal until the final obituary on SB1000 is written. But nevertheless, Adams' office says they are prepared--the ordinance has already been written and workshopped, and should have an easy time passing city council when it is finally introduced.

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