Just a few weeks ago, Oregon state senator Ben Westlund voted yes on Measure 36 to ban same-sex marriages in Oregon. Now, the central Oregon lawmaker is hard at work drafting a civil unions bill for the 2005 legislature to give gay and lesbian couples some of the rights bestowed on married couples. "It's just the right thing to do," the Tumalo Republican says. "Nothing in Measure 36 prevents the legislature from affording equal rights and privileges to same-sex couples."
Not everyone in the legislature agrees, though, and Westlund's sponsorship of a civil unions law will thrust him into the middle of what likely will be one of thorniest debates of the 2005 session. Already, battle lines are forming over what action--if any--is needed from the legislature after voters on November 2 approved a constitutional amendment specifying that marriage is strictly for heterosexual couples only.
A key lawmaker, Rep. Dennis Richardson of Central Point, is urging his fellow house Republicans to resist civil unions legislation. "If civil union status is granted, there will be no turning back. The liberals and the homosexual-lesbian coalition will have won, and the people's vote in favor of traditional marriage will have been effectively nullified," Richardson wrote in an e-mail to other house Republicans.
A big question mark is how the Oregon supreme court will rule in a case resulting from Multnomah County's issuing of marriage licenses to roughly 3,000 gay and lesbian couples in March before a judge halted the practice. The supreme court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on December 15, and it's not clear how or whether Measure 36 affects the pending case. Gay rights supporters already have filed briefs urging the court to order the legislature to pass a law creating a civil union alternative to marriage for same-sex couples. Lawmakers aren't obligated to wait for the court, and Westlund said he and others are preparing to take up the challenge on their own.
Senate majority leader Kate Brown said she's hopeful the court will issue a ruling soon after hearing the case and that it will provide the 2005 legislature with a decent road map. "This is a very divisive issue," the Portland Democrat said. "I don't want to see us go through a difficult debate without some clear guidance from the supreme court."
House speaker Karen Minnis is noncommittal at this point about what action the legislature needs to take. However, she accused gay rights supporters of being inconsistent on the civil unions issue. "What I heard throughout the whole Measure 36 campaign was, the gay community wasn't interested in the civil unions," the Wood Village Republican said. "I don't know if they have changed their mind on the subject."
A spokeswoman for Basic Rights Oregon, the state's leading gay rights group, said there has been something of a shift in the organization's stance since voters approved the ban on same-sex marriage. Rebekah Kassell said that some gay rights organizations do reject civil unions as conferring second-class, separate-but-equal status on same-sex couples. In view of Measure 36's approval, however, it might be a "step in the right direction" to give same-sex couples the same legal rights accorded to married people, even without the label of marriage, Kassell said. "We appreciate the fact that people like Senator Westlund are looking for ways to better support gay and lesbian Oregonians," she said.
The Defense of Marriage Coalition, which led the campaign to win voter approval of the ban, isn't taking a formal position on civil unions at this point. "The coalition set out to defend marriage, and now we have an amendment that does that," said coalition spokesman Tim Nashif. "When they define exactly what a civil union means, then we will take a position."
Westlund, for his part, said crafting a civil unions measure won't be an easy task. The Republican senator said that just in the initial stages of drafting his bill, he's found 436 state statutes that relate to marriage that might have to be amended or folded into any civil unions law. "It's going to be an extraordinarily complicated task, but it also will be a huge step forward," he said.