Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s recent proposal of an anti-discrimination bill for gay rights during his State of the State address has been met with opposition by groups that supported the state ban on gay marriage in November.
The apparent change in tactics has some gay rights supporters wondering if it represents a shift for the groups away from opposition to same-sex marriage and towards opposition to legal protections for gays and lesbians in general.
Senate Bill 176 would extend state laws that prohibit discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations to include sexual orientation.
Kulongoski’s proposal has the Oregon Family Council and the Defense of Marriage Coalition on the defense with the reasons behind their opposition to the bill.
Both groups rose to notoriety during the campaign for Measure 36, which passed in November defining marriage in Oregon as between one man and one woman. The Defense of Marriage Coalition won influence by uniting thousands of church leaders around the state, but also gained support from the secular community, often under the pretense that the issue at hand was solely same-sex marriage and not gay rights in general.
Their opposition to the anti-discrimination bill, however, has some gay rights supporters questioning their stance on Measure 36, wondering if "It’s not about being gay, it’s about preserving the sanctity of marriage," has shifted towards simple opposition to equal protections for gays and lesbians.
According to Rebekah Kassell, communications director for Basic Rights Oregon, the state’s most prominent gay rights group, it has. She was in Salem to represent the couples who appealed Measure 36 on Monday. Kassell believes that the Defense of Marriage Coalition and the Oregon Family Council’s opposition to the anti-discrimination bill doesn’t coincide with their argument that Measure 36 had nothing to do with discrimination.
"It shows that they were willing to say what they had to say to get the measure to pass … they have no interest in protecting gays and lesbians in Oregon from discrimination."
Basic Rights Oregon filed a lawsuit for a dozen couples appealing Measure 36 on Monday, arguing that the new amendment violates the intent of the Oregon constitution.
Tim Nashif, political director for the Oregon Family Council and head of the Defense of Marriage Coalition said he disagrees with the notion gays are a minority.
Nashif said his opposition to bill has nothing to do with discrimination, and the only relationship it has to Measure 36 is that down the road a case could be made for marital status.
Nashif argues that sexual orientation is not in the U.S. or Oregon constitutions and it shouldn’t be. He said he believes gay people do not fit the Supreme Courts any of the three criteria for minority status: economic deprivation, political powerlessness and immutable unchangeable characteristics.
"You can tell if someone’s a minority, in what they do and what their situation is," Nashif said, and according to him, gay people don’t fit that description.
"That argument he’s throwing out there is really a red herring," Kassell said, "I think the [queer] Oregon community fit all of those criteria. You don’t get 80 percent of Oregon supporting this bill without including those who support Measure 36," she says.
Nashif said that there is support among Oregonians to make sure no one is discriminated against as individuals, but not support to write minority status into the legislation.
He supports his stance against the bill proposed by Kulongoski by saying that support of the bill changes with the title.
"It depends on how you frame it," he says. "With minority status comes the right to sue … to put fear into the hearts of employers."
One of Nashif’s main concerns lies with the belief that by granting gay people minority status Oregon will be faced with a barrage of gay people suing employers because of discrimination.
"The problem of discrimination doesn’t exist," he said.
According to Kulongoski spokesperson Anna Richter Taylor, the bill had been a debate for years. The timing of its proposal has been elevated as a public debate because of Measure 36.
"There are two issues here, same sex marriage and discrimination. Kulongoski feels this bill is about creating fairness and quality … the Oregon economy is based on a state of inclusiveness and sexual orientation shouldn’t bar you from contributing."
Kassell says Basic Rights Oregon is working with Kulongoski to compare and contrast the anti-discrimination bill he’s proposing along with BRO’s own bill, the Oregon Basic Fairness Act.
What both bills ask for is a statewide prohibition of discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodation, public services and education on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The definition of sexual orientation would also contain provisions that would prohibit gender identity discrimination.
"In the end all of us want the same outcome," she says of their work with Kulongoski, "We’re asking for simple and basic fair protections."