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State Senate approves civil unions bill
Saturday, July 09, 2005
SALEM -- After more than two hours of debate that included talk of God's will and the history of the civil rights movement, the Oregon Senate endorsed legislation on Friday to allow civil unions and to prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians.
The historic 19-10 vote marks the first time an Oregon legislative chamber has taken up the question of civil unions for same-sex couples.
However, there's little chance of passage in the House, where Republican leaders said the bill won't reach the floor for a vote this session.
Despite that, Senate Democrats had the votes in their chamber and seized the symbolic and political opportunity to put civil unions and anti-discrimination protections up for public debate.
Several senators reflected on past battles waged to gain civil rights protections for minorities and women. Although those protections took a long time to win, they argued that government must support acceptance over intolerance and that Oregon must lead the way.
If the bill were to become law, Oregon would be the third state to offer same-sex couples many of the same protections that married couples receive.
Senate Bill 1000, sponsored by a bipartisan group of senators and endorsed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski, also would make it illegal to deny people a job, hotel room or other public service because of their sexual orientation.
The proposal landed in the Legislature after voters last fall endorsed Measure 36, a constitutional amendment defining marriage as only between a man and a woman. It also followed a decision from the Oregon Supreme Court earlier this year declaring that Multnomah County had no authority to issue marriage licenses to 3,000 same-sex couples.
During Friday's debate, senators who opposed SB1000 warned that the proposal violates the will of the voters.
"Fundamentally, I believe that this bill throws the vote of 57 percent of Oregonians back in their face," said Sen. Bruce Starr, R-Hillsboro. He questioned whether the public could trust state senators and representatives if they allowed SB1000 to become law.
Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown, D-Portland, said Measure 36 did not prohibit the Oregon Legislature from providing to same-sex couples many of the same rights and responsibilities that opposite-sex married couples currently hold.
Brown also stressed that civil unions are not the same as marriage and offered a list of benefits same-sex couples would not receive through a civil union, such as the joint filing of federal tax returns and Social Security benefits.
"Is anyone on the Senate floor willing to trade their marriage for a civil union? I doubt it," Brown said.
Watchers in the gallery
About 70 people watched the vote from the Senate gallery. Dozens wore baby blue T-shirts reading: "Support SB1000."
"I don't care if it's called marriage or civil unions. Like every Oregonian, I pay taxes. I'm a law-abiding citizen, and I think I deserve equal rights," said James Trujillo, of Portland, who watched the vote from the Senate gallery with his partner, Brian Gabbard.
Also watching from the gallery was Tootie Smith, a lobbyist for the Oregon Family Council. The council, which publishes a Christian voter's guide, is pushing its own version of a more limited "reciprocal benefits" bill in the House and is working to defeat SB1000.
"I think it's just a ploy to satisfy a very small, liberal voice in the state of Oregon," Smith said.
Hundreds of people have come to the Capitol in past months to testify during 10 hours of public hearings. Legislators acknowledge that Oregonians have strong feelings on both sides.
Before the Senate began its debate Friday morning, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, asked all assembled to show respect for the proceedings.
It was clear from the beginning that Friday's floor session was going to be different from any other day. The usual chatter at the back of the chamber was silent. Senators read from prepared speeches, often in voices that cracked with emotion.
Bipartisan vote on issue
The vote was bipartisan, with two Republicans supporting the bill and one Democrat voting no. Even if they disagreed, senators hugged, shook hands and praised others' speeches.
Sen. Frank Morse, R-Corvallis, a SB1000 cosponsor, said his support came from "what God has called me to do and to be."
Acknowledging that people of "good conscience" disagree about the bill, Morse asked his colleagues to think about Oregon: "Will we be a state that blesses or curses those who are different?"
Such questions and emotional debate are likely to continue regardless of what the 2005 Legislature does with SB1000.
Both sides are considering ballot measures among other options to clarify Oregon law.
"I still don't believe we solved the problem," Tim Nashif, political director for the Oregon Family Council, said Friday.
Roey Thorpe, executive director for Basic Rights Oregon, said gay-rights activists are "keeping all of our options open."
"We don't have plans for a ballot measure," Thorpe said. "But that could change."
In the meantime, she said, "We'll be putting all of our energy for the rest of the session into asking our representatives in the House to demand a vote."
Felicia Heaton of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report.
Michelle Cole: 503-294-5143; email@example.com
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