Lawmakers hear testimony on civil unions

Posted on 12 Apr 2007 at 7:59pm
By Brad Cain Associated Press

Activists on both sides of debate offer opinions, personal stories at Oregon legislative hearing

SALEM, Ore. Hundreds of activists from both sides of the gay rights debate crowded into the Capitol Monday night, April 9, to give lawmakers an earful on measures to allow civil unions for same-sex couples and to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

On the one side, gays and lesbians offered emotional testimony about the discrimination they’ve faced in employment and other areas and in their committed relationships to each other that are not recognized by the state.

Religious conservatives, on the other hand, worried that the anti-discrimination bill, in some cases, could erode religious freedom by forcing churches and religious institutions to accept something they might consider immoral.

The comments came as the House Rules committee opened a hearing on a civil unions measure that would give same-sex couples most of the benefits ordinarily reserved for married couples under state law.

Also before the committee is a Senate-passed bill to prohibit discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people in employment, housing and access to public accommodations.

Among those who testified Monday night was Travis Prinslow, a gay man from Salem who said he was fired from his job at a retail store despite having an “exemplary” work record.

State Rep. Tina Kotek talked of the pain of not having been able to enter into a civil union with her “loving partner,” Aimee Wilson, that would afford them benefits that married couples enjoy such as hospital visitation rights or shared health benefits.

In the 2005 Legislature, the civil unions measure generated most of the controversy. Then-Republican House Speaker Karen Minnis refused to allow a vote on the bill, saying it would thwart the will of Oregon voters who approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2004.

This year, however, most of the controversy surrounds the anti-discrimination bill and whether it provides a sufficient exemption for religious institutions.

As written, the bill allows religious groups to discriminate against hiring or housing gays or permitting them to use their facilities.

However, the Oregon Family Council, a Christian group that put the gay marriage ban on the 2004 ballot, and other critics said the bill fails to offer a sufficient exemption to faiths that oppose homosexuality on religious grounds.

The bill says religious groups can discriminate for activities connected to the “primary purpose” of the church or institution and not for commercial activities. In other words, a religious school could not be forced to hire a gay teacher, but a church-affiliated hospital could be barred from discrimination in its hiring or who it chooses to serve.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 13, 2007

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