Legislature split on gay couple benefits

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – If the state’s Senate Democrats get their way, Oregon will follow Vermont’s lead and enact civil unions, giving gay couples the rights and privileges of marriage without the title.

But if House Republicans prevail, Oregon will follow Hawaii’s example and pass a “reciprocal benefits” law, offering a more limited range of rights to couples who have lived together for a long time, gay or straight.

The dispute over which plan, if any, will pass this legislative session is the latest in the state’s 13-months-and-counting battle over gay marriage – which started when Multnomah County commissioners issued marriage licenses to about 3,000 gay couples over six weeks last year.

A recent Oregon Supreme Court decision invalidated those marriages, and voters last fall adopted a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, putting legalized gay marriage off the table, at least for now. Civil unions and reciprocal benefits have been proposed to fill the void.

The civil unions bill has some muscle behind it. Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski is backing the bill; perhaps more significantly, so have two Republican Senators, Frank Morse of Albany and Ben Westlund of Bend.

The bill would extend “hundreds of legal benefits not currently covered under Oregon law,” to gay couples, Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown, D-Portland, said.

Brown cited benefits as disparate as the option to share a room in a long-term care facility and the right of a partner of a terrorism victim to receive compensation.

Despite the bipartisan backing, it isn’t clear how far the civil unions bill could get in the Republican-dominated House, where Speaker Karen Minnis, R-Wood Village, has been quiet about its prospects.

Meanwhile, Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, is pushing the reciprocal benefits plan. The proposal has brought him national publicity, including a slot on “Hardball” with Chris Matthews.

Richardson said his plan stops short of the rights allocated by Hawaii’s existing version of reciprocal benefits. Instead, he said it would cover areas like “inheritance issues, property ownership and bank account issues.”

“It is important for the House to respond in a limited and appropriate manner,” he said. “The goal is to do so based on issues of fairness.”

Reciprocal benefits, Richardson said, would extend equally to gay couples and to households like that of two elderly cousins, who have lived together for years.

Westlund and Brown both stressed that the two proposals were not “mutually exclusive,” and Brown said she thinks there is room for both bills to pass this session.

But, she said, the two are not interchangeable.

“Reciprocal benefits does not recognize the long-term relationship of a same-sex couple; it is missing the love-partnership-sex piece,” Brown said. “It doesn’t deal with the legal issues involving children, separations, support, visitation, adoption. This is not the vehicle I would use to provide legal protections for a same-sex couple.”

Richardson, meanwhile, said he sees the civil unions bill as an affront to the 57 percent of Oregonians who voted in favor of Measure 36, which banned same-sex marriage in the state.

“In my opinion, (civil unions) flouts the vote of the people on Measure 36,” Richardson said. “The purpose of (reciprocal benefits) is not to satisfy the gay rights demands. It is to provide for issues of fairness that goes beyond sexual orientation.”