Rallying for civil unions

Several Portland State students traveled to a rally on the Capitol steps in Salem last Wednesday to urge House Speaker Karen Minnis, R-Wood Village, to schedule a vote for Senate Bill 1000, which would legalize same-sex civil unions and establish a statewide ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“We want to make sure that they know in Salem that there is a progressive political community at PSU,” said College Democrats President Meaghan Mayeda. “Right now, gays and lesbians are treated as second-class citizens.”

SB1000 passed the Senate with bi-partisan support on July 6 but has not yet been scheduled for a vote in the heavily backlogged House of Representatives. To the chagrin of many bill supporters, Minnis has been excusing representatives for extended weekends. “Today they called it quits about lunchtime saying they didn’t have enough business. Well, we’ve got business for them,” said Roey Thorpe, Executive Director of Basic Rights Oregon, an advocacy group for the queer community.

Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams emceed the event that counted Governor Ted Kulongoski among its speakers. “We are trying to bring greater equality to all of our citizens. Give us a vote!” said Kulongoski to the crowd.

Many of the rally’s estimated 400 attendees were upbeat despite the uncertain future of SB1000. “It would be such an amazing thing to know that I’m not only safe and protected in Multnomah County, but in the whole state,” said Cheryl Hollatz-Wisely, a career center counselor at PSU.

The conviction of many politicians at the rally was that the prospects for the bill seemed good. “It’s old guys like me holding this back. I predict it will pass,” said Senator Alan Bates, D-Ashland, and one of the bill’s sponsors.

Minnis moved forward with SB1000, July 21. In a tactic known as “gut and stuff,” she called a private committee to remove all of the bill’s original language and replace it with that of House Bill 3476, a “reciprocal benefits” bill which would allow people who cannot legally marry to enter into contracts granting them broader rights involving such things as hospital visits and burial decisions. The contract could be entered by same-sex partners or family members, “such as a widowed mother and her unmarried son,” alike, according to House documents.

It would be difficult to legally challenge this move, according to Basic Rights Oregon Communications Director Rebekah Kassell.

“This shows clearly that she feared that the bill might pass,” said Kassell. Though Basic Rights Oregon members are disappointed by the latest developments, and Kassell said that a win for the bill in the current legislative session would be difficult, she notes that much progress has been made in influencing the legislature. “The fact that we were able to scare the Speaker of the House that badly – the significance of that cannot be overstated.”

Calling Minnis’ actions “underhanded,” Rep. Mary Nolan, Tuesday, introduced House Bill 3508, which combines the civil union and nondiscrimination provisions with reciprocal benefits.

“This new bill is not a symbolic effort,” Nolan said. “We’re giving the Speaker of the House one more chance to do the right thing. It’s not acceptable that one person, the Speaker of the House, should stand in the way and prevent the House from doing its duty.”

SB1000 has had popular support with PSU students since Gov. Kulongoski introduced the bill on behalf of Basic Rights Oregon earlier this year. “Back in May, we delivered over 900 postcards to House and Senate members from PSU students urging them to vote ‘yes’,” said Kento Azegami, vice president of College Democrats. “We still believe that there are options in this session, and we will continue to fight.”