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Editorial: Old, new, borrowed and blue
The Oregon House should at least vote on civil unions; approving them won't thwart the will of the electorate
Friday, July 15, 2005 - The Oregonian
Five years ago, a handful of Vermont legislators had to make up a name for a pioneering legal partnership. Although they didn't know it at the time, the name they stumbled on would resonate with people all over the nation.
It would take a concept considered radical and politically fatal and tame it so much that, a few years later, even President Bush would be comfortable with the idea.
The contract Vermont invented wasn't marriage for gay and lesbian couples, but did offer them parallel legal protections. The new name had to be respectful while avoiding the religious blessings and social adumbrations of the M-word.
The legislators scratched "domestic partnership" off their list, believing this term belittled gay and lesbian couples as housemates sharing chores. France had created something called pactes civil for gays and lesbians, and the Vermonters liked the sound of that. One legislator translated that into "civil accord," but, David Moats writes in his book, "Civil Wars: The Battle for Gay Marriage," that sounded too much like a Japanese car. Another legislator hit on the perfect translation:
"It conveyed the joining, the merging, that occurs as a result of the emotional and sexual commitment of a marriage," Moats writes. And yet it did not convey the religious symbolism. "People solemnized a marriage. They would certify a civil union."
Few realized that the phrase -- plain yet powerful -- would permit a revolution to unfold quietly in Vermont and even spread to the White House. "I don't think we should deny people rights to a civil union, a legal arrangement, if that's what a state chooses to do," the president said in a TV interview shortly before the election.
If that's what a state chooses to do . . . Oregon could still choose to do it in this legislative session -- and it should. Last week, the Senate approved Senate Bill 1000, which would create Vermont-style civil unions and outlaw discrimination against gays and lesbians. Prospects for the bill in the House are dim, with some legislators arguing that they cannot support this bill because it would thwart the will of Oregonians.
Last fall, Oregon voters amended the Oregon Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Despite their support for this ban on gays marrying, voters didn't breathe a word against civil unions. Polling suggests, in fact, that Oregonians not only support civil unions, but also want to end the discrimination gays and lesbians face in housing and employment.
Supporters of SB1000 include some Oregon Republicans who, like President Bush, oppose gay marriage. But they want to be fair. They think creation of civil unions is the fair thing to do.
When Vermont dreamed up the idea, neither gay-rights supporters nor conservatives were enthusiastic. That's why it's called a compromise. One group believed civil unions didn't come close enough to marriage; the other group believed civil unions came too close.
Both groups were right.
In legal terms, a civil union is nearly identical, except that it isn't portable across state lines, it doesn't convey federal benefits, it doesn't have the social or religious overtones of marriage and it isn't called marriage. That word itself has tremendous power. For gay-rights supporters, so long as that word is denied to gays, a civil union will always fall drastically short of true equality.
Oregonians have borrowed both the idea and the name for this compromise from Vermont. So you can say a civil union contains something old, something new, something borrowed -- and something blue: It's imperfect.
Still, this legal contract has worked so well to protect gay and lesbian families that Connecticut has now followed Vermont's lead. Oregon should, too. At the very least, the Oregon House should vote on SB1000.
Marriage is out of the question.
Fairness is still possible.