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Gay rights activists see hope in Ore. civil unions vote
03:50 PM PDT on Saturday, July 9, 2005
By BRAD CAIN, Associated Press Writer
SALEM -- After last fall's bruising defeats in Oregon and 10 other states where voters adopted bans on same-sex marriage, gay rights activists are hoping to regain some political ground with passage of a civil unions law in Oregon.
Regina Tobin, left, and Shirley Catterall, a lesbian couple from southwest Portland are seen in front of the Oregon Capitol with their 22-month-old daughter Grace.
The Oregon Senate's approval of a bill Friday opening up to same-sex couples hundreds of benefits only available to married couples was touted by the advocates as a major step in that direction.
Passage in the Republican-controlled House appears doubtful.
But a spokesman for a national gay rights group in Washington, D.C., hailed the state Senate vote and said backers think there's a chance that an intensive lobbying and phone-banking effort by supporters can bring the bill to a House vote.
Seth Kilbourn of the Human Rights Campaign notes that Oregon would be the third state with civil unions — Connecticut this year decided to join Vermont in offering them — while states such as Illinois and Maine have passed laws banning discrimination against homosexuals.
"The Oregon vote will add to the forward progress that we're seeing in other states toward equal treatment for gay and lesbian people," Kilbourn said.
Read Text of Senate Bill 1000
A recent statewide poll indicated there is more support than opposition among Oregon voters for civil unions.
The survey, conducted by Portland pollster Mike Riley, found that 49 percent of voters support civil unions compared with 30 percent opposed and 21 percent undecided. The poll's margin of error was 4.5 percent.
Riley said he sees no conflict between that result and the fact that Oregon voters last November endorsed Measure 36, the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, by a 57 percent to 43 percent margin.
"Same-sex marriage is a hot-button issue, but for most people I don't think civil unions is a hot-button issue," he said.
However, a leading critic of the Senate's civil unions bill said it violates the spirit of Oregon's Measure 36, defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman.
Tim Nashif, political director for the Oregon Family Council, also said he doesn't think most Oregonians in the survey understood that the Senate bill is worded so broadly and amends so many existing statutes that the civil unions would be "marriage by another name."
"People are not in favor of meddling with the traditional family unit. That is a societal change that Oregonians do not want," Nashif said.
Republican House Speaker Karen Minnis uses that same reasoning in insisting that the Senate's civil unions bill won't be brought up for a House floor vote.
"It appears to us that the Senate bill is just marriage by another name," said Minnis spokesman Chuck Deister. "That is not consistent with what the voters told us just seven months ago."
Shirley Catterall and Regina Tobin, a lesbian couple from southwest Portland who traveled to the Capitol with their 22-month-old daughter Grace to observe Friday's Senate debate, said they won't be deterred by that argument and will continue to work for House vote on civil unions.
"Regina and I and Grace are a family right now," Catterall said. "All we want are the same rights and benefits and protections that the law gives to heterosexual couples and their children."
Catterall and Tobin have been direct participants in the gay marriage debate that began in Oregon in early 2004, when Multnomah County began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The two women were among the nearly 3,000 gay and lesbian couples who received marriage licenses before a judge ordered the county to stop. In April of this year, the Oregon Supreme Court threw out the Multnomah County marriage licenses, saying it was not within the county's rights to issue them.
After watching the Senate's debate Friday from the chamber's upper gallery, Tobin said she feels optimistic that society will confer civil union rights — and eventually full marriage status — to same-sex couples such as her and Catterall.
"It's inevitable. I think it will happen in my lifetime," Tobin said. "And 50 years from now, people will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about."
US: Oregon Senate Passes Civil Union Bill - AP