Civil unions possible in Oregon

Posted on 08 Feb 2007 at 8:27pm

Election victories by Democrats give gay marriage activists hope

SALEM, Ore. After legal and political setbacks in recent years, Alex and Kevin Bailey-Gilliam of West Linn believe they and other same-sex couples are on the verge of winning new rights and benefits in Oregon.

The reason for their optimism is the new pro-gay rights majority in both the Oregon House and the Senate. With backing from Gov. Ted Kulongoski, it appears likely the Legislature will adopt a civil unions law opening up to same-sex couples benefits available to married couples.

It would be a key victory for the couple, who were among 3,000 same-sex couples granted marriage licenses in Multnomah County in 2004 before the Oregon Supreme Court stepped in the following year and nullified the licenses as unconstitutional.

“Getting the $64 refund check in the mail [for the voided marriage license] was a slap in the face,” Alex Bailey-Gilliam remembers.

Gay rights backers were dealt another setback later in 2005 when an attempt to get a civil unions bill to extend benefits and rights of marriage to same-sex couples died in the Republican-run Oregon House after winning approval in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Now, however, with Democrats running both chambers of the Legislature after former House Speaker Karen Minnis and other Republicans were ousted from the majority in last November’s election, the civil unions bill has gotten new life and is considered likely to pass this year.

Around the country, gay rights advocates think the tide is starting to turn in their favor, in part because of Democratic gains in last November’s election Democrats now control both chambers in 23 statehouses across the country and changing public attitudes about same-sex couples.

“On this question, the fever has broken in our country,” said Evan Wolfson, head of the national advocacy group Freedom to Marry. “People are really thinking again about fairness and the way gay people are treated when it comes to marriage and family relationships.”

If Oregon approves the alternative approach of a civil unions law, it would join Connecticut, New Jersey and Vermont that already have such laws. Several other states are considering adopting similar laws this year, Wolfson said.

The civil unions issue is bubbling just below the surface in the Oregon Legislature at the moment, with advocates working behind the scenes to try to come up with language and provisions acceptable to all sides in the debate.

House Majority Leader Dave Hunt, a Milwaukee Democrat who backs civil unions legislation, said the issue is now the subject of “thoughtful, inside-the-building” discussions that eventually will result in a full slate of public hearings.

“Unlike our predecessors, we are actually going to allow a free and open discussion of this issue,” Hunt said, referring to the refusal of Minnis and other GOP leaders to allow the Senate-passed civil unions to be brought to a House vote in the 2005 Legislature.

Minnis and other Republicans argued at the time that passing a civil unions bill would thwart the will of Oregon voters who approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in the November 2004 election.

Tim Nashif, a political consultant and Oregon Family Council director who led the campaign to pass the gay marriage ban, said his group is taking a wait-and-see approach on the civil unions discussions going on at the State Capitol.

Nashif said his group could support a law that extends a number of benefits, such as hospital visitation and health benefits, to same-sex couples and other nontraditional families but not full marriage rights for same-sex couples.

He said the Family Council might get behind a referral effort to round up petition signatures to block a civil unions law from taking effect and put it to a statewide vote.

A spokesman for Basic Rights Oregon, the state’s leading gay rights group, said civil union backers are hoping to avoid what could be an expensive, divisive ballot measure campaign by trying to craft a bill that could be acceptable to all sides. Such a bill would “make it clear that civil unions are not the same as marriage,” Bryan Boyd said.

“It would provide same-sex couples the same rights, benefits and responsibilities that are comparable to those provided by marriage, but without altering the traditional definition of marriage itself in state statutes,” Boyd said.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 9, 2007

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