Are civil rights in jeopardy?

Over a week has passed since the election left Bush firmly entrenched in office, with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress as well as 11 new constitutional bans on gay marriage in states across the country.

Here in the Democratic mecca of Portland, feelings of despair and fear for the future are still simmering beneath the surface as people continue with their daily lives. But how bad is it, really?

Burton Christopherson, director of affirmative action at PSU and a former civil rights investigator isn’t that worried. “Not much will change,” he said in a recent interview.

Christopherson’s comment came despite a post-election promise by Karl Rove, Bush’s chief strategist, that Bush will “absolutely” pursue his campaign promise of a constitutional ban on gay marriage at the federal level.

Women’s rights issues, including abortion, are also at risk, as Bush will likely be making several Supreme Court appointments during his second term that could provide the votes to overturn Roe v. Wade.

More disconcerting than the potential damage is the fact that these are the issues that got out the conservative vote and governed the results of this election, as exit polls showed that a high number of voters voted based on “moral issues.”

Most people believe that another attempt to push through a federal ban on gay marriage will fail, but when such bans pass even in Oregon, there’s definitely cause for worry.

Christopherson also has another idea, that the reason so many amendments banning gay marriage passed was because of the way the issue was framed, and if the vote had been to establish civil unions for gays, as many people would have voted for that as voted for bans on gay marriages.

Unfortunately, of the 11 states that added constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, only Mississippi, Montana and Oregon stopped there.

The amendments in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah also banned civil unions for same-sex couples, something that even Bush doesn’t want to do.

As bad as this may sound, there still may be broad-based support for civil unions. The language in most of the amendments was vague, and voters may not have been aware they were in effect banning civil unions as well.

But even if civil unions were enacted for same-sex couples, a distinct dilemma remains. It wouldn’t be the first time bigots tried to convince the nation that “separate but equal” was possible; however, such separations are inherently discriminatory.

“If people will support civil unions, we should create them for not only homosexuals but heterosexuals, too,” said Dr. Ann Mussey, a PSU women’s studies professor. This would avert any discrimination issues and would also allow an alternative for heterosexual couples that would like the benefits of marriage without the religious connotations.

Mussey suggests, “Let the churches have marriage. Let them define it any way they want.”

Moving towards civil unions for all couples would also make it easier to separate the religious component from debates over this issue, creating the division between church and state that the framers of the Constitution intended.

These issues may not seem very important in the face of mounting death tolls in Iraq, rising levels of carcinogens in breast milk and a “war on terror” that has created legal but unconstitutional methods for government intrusions in our personal lives, but these are the issues that drove this election.

If you’re worried about the civil rights of your gay friends, family members or lovers, breathe a little easier.

Things may seem bad, but as Christopherson said, “There was a similar wailing and gnashing of teeth when Reagan was in office. But civil rights were not only not dismantled, they progressed forward.”

Michelle Howa can be reached at [email protected]