Bill would add sexual orientation to state’s anti-discrimination law if
lawmakers approve the measure after almost 3 decades of rejecting it
OLYMPIA, Wash. Representative Ed Murray knows better than to celebrate a lone Republican’s change of heart, even though it could break the decades-old logjam over a measure to extend anti-discrimination protection to gays and lesbians.
The Seattle Democrat has watched the bill banning discrimination in jobs and housing die in the Legislature for many years first as a gay-rights activist, then as a lawmaker in the state House.
“Every year something causes a vote or two to slip away,” he said.
But if the math holds, the vote from Senator Bill Finkbeiner, a moderate Republican from Kirkland, is all supporters need.
Finkbeiner wasn’t the only one who had a change of heart. Microsoft Corp. has come out in favor of the measure, a year after being denounced for quietly dropping support for it. This week, the company joined Boeing, Hewlett Packard Co., Nike and other companies in a letter to state leaders urging passage of the bill.
Under the bill, “sexual orientation” would be added to a state law that already bans discrimination in housing, employment and insurance based on race, gender, age, disability, religion, marital status and other factors. Sixteen states have passed similar laws. Businesses with fewer than eight employees would be exempt.
The measure was first introduced in 1977 by the state’s openly gay lawmaker, Democrat Cal Anderson of Seattle. He died of AIDS in 1995.
“The debate around this bill has a lot more to do with a discussion about whether or not it’s OK to be gay or lesbian,” Finkbeiner said. “The state is wrong if we end up saying, “‘no, it’s not OK.”’
Supporters say the time for the change in law is long overdue.
“Can you imagine that you can still get fired or denied housing because you’re gay or lesbian in this state?” asked Fran Dunaway, executive director of Equal Rights Washington, a group formed to support the gay civil rights bill. “This bill has been in the making for 30 years. It’s time.”
But opponents say that the bill gives special preference to a group they say has not proven it suffers from discrimination.
“What the homosexual side has failed to show is whether there is any pattern of discrimination that they are victims of now,” said the Rev. Joseph Fuiten, a Bothell pastor who is chairman of the Faith & Freedom Network, which opposes the bill.
Dunaway cited a 1998 state Court of Appeals ruling in Webb v. Puget Sound Broadcasting Co. that rejected a gay man’s challenge to his firing.
“We find it disturbing that his employer would discharge him based on his sexual orientation alone,” the court wrote. “Nonetheless, our Legislature, for whatever reason, has not enacted legislation giving at-will employees a statutory cause of action for employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.”
Murray, a protege of Anderson who has sponsored the gay rights bill for the last 11 years, cites a report released by King County’s Public Health Department and other public and private organizations last year that showed reports of discrimination based on sexual orientation increased 20 percent from 2001 to 2004.
“Even in the city of Seattle, a gay-friendly city, there’s statistical proof that there’s discrimination against gays and lesbians,” he said.
Fuiten ties the bill to a pending decision from the state Supreme Court on gay marriage.
“We feel it’s the beginning of the end if this passes,” Fuiten said. “If you have to treat homosexuals as essentially the same, then you’re opening the door to requiring that you treat homosexual couples the same as heterosexual couples and you’re unable to deny them the privilege of marriage.”
Murray said these type of groups are attempting to confuse the issue.
“Laws governing employment have nothing to do with laws governing marriage,” he said.
The bill, with the backing of Governor Christine Gregoire, is expected to pass the House, where it passed last year on a 61-37 vote, with six Republicans joining 55 Democrats.
Finkbeiner’s switch all but assures its passage in the Senate, where it was previously defeated after two Democrats, Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, joined 23 Republicans in defeating the bill 25-24.
Sheldon and Hargrove have said they have no plans to change their vote.
Fuiten and others, including the Rev. Ken Hutcherson, pastor of Antioch Bible Church in Redmond, said they will pressure other Democrats to switch their vote to no, though Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, a Democrat, insists the rest of the caucus is firm in its support.
Senator Marilyn Rasmussen, a Democrat, who represents a rural, more conservative district, has opposed the measure in the past, but voted for the bill last year.
Hutcherson, who has organized anti-gay-marriage rallies in Seattle and Washington, D.C., was at the middle of the Microsoft controversy last year on the gay rights issue. He says he pressured Microsoft into dropping its support of the measure last year by threatening a boycott; the company insists its decision came before a meeting with him.
Microsoft spokesman Lou Gellos wouldn’t talk about the company’s prior position.
Hutcherson, who lives in Finkbeiner’s district, suggested the issue would haunt Finkbeiner in his re-election bid come November.
“Who knows if he’ll even run again when this is all over,” he said.
Finkbeiner acknowledged that this is probably going to be one of his highest-profile votes.
“Every morning I have to get up and live with myself,” he said. “If I’m not feeling good about what I’m doing, that’s a much higher price than getting elected or not elected.”
Murray, one of four openly gay members of the Legislature, said he fears the strong feelings on both sides could complicate things once the measure gets to the Senate floor.
“The struggle is not over,” Murray said. “Until the lieutenant governor declares the bill passed, I won’t stop working to try and pass it.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition of January 20, 2006.