Originally published on Advocate.com September 10 2004 12:00 AM ET
A proposed ban on same-sex marriage would mean unfair and unequal treatment for gay workers and their families, Oregon labor commissioner Dan Gardner said Wednesday. Gardner joined about a dozen members of building and trade unions to oppose Measure 36, which would amend the Oregon constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a woman. If approved by voters on November 2, the measure would eliminate health insurance and other benefits for the spouses and children of married gay and lesbian workers. "It literally puts unequal treatment--unfairness--in the law," Gardner said of the measure, sponsored by the Defense of Marriage Coalition. "Is that what the constitution is about? I don't think so." But Tim Nashif, political director for the Portland-based coalition, said that Measure 36 can't take away benefits that don't exist. "If someone wants to extend insurance to gay or lesbian partners, they don't need permission and they don't need a law," Nashif said. "It has nothing to do with marriage."
Without the protection of marriage, the domestic partners of gay or lesbian workers would be unable to receive the wages of their deceased spouses or file wrongful death lawsuits, Gardner said. They also wouldn't receive health insurance or medical coverage under some plans. "Clearly, being married matters," said electrical apprentice Dolores Doyle, who married her partner of 16 years, Kelly Burke, in Multnomah County on March 3. Since then, Burke has received medical coverage under her spouse's union contract, Doyle said, bringing emotional and financial stability to the couple and their 3-year-old son, Avery. "All working people should be treated fairly and equally and be able to share the benefit of that labor with their spouses and families," Gardner said, noting that most Oregon businesses and unions do not count domestic partners as valid spouses. Nashif said that benefits for the families of gay spouses should be decided by the courts or the state legislature, not Gardner. "I think it's very unfortunate that the labor commissioner of Oregon would use his office to promote the gay agenda," he said.
Gardner's announcement came one day after a judge struck down Washington State's ban on same-sex marriage, saying that state's constitution broadly guarantees equality. Thurston County superior court judge Richard Hicks said those guarantees of equality are violated by the state's 1998 Defense of Marriage Act, which bans same-sex civil marriage. The American Civil Liberties Union brought the case on behalf of 11 gay and lesbian couples from around Washington. That ruling, along with a similar ruling in King County, will be appealed to the state supreme court. The Oregon supreme court is slated for its own challenge on November 17. Nine same-sex couples allege that prohibiting them from marrying denies them equal protection under the Oregon constitution.
If voters do decide to amend the constitution, that could make the supreme court case obsolete, said Rebekah Kassell, a spokeswoman for the Oregon coalition that opposes Measure 36. The gay marriage issue arose in Oregon when Multnomah County issued more than 3,000 marriage licenses to same-sex couples between March 3 and April 20, after which a judge put a stop to the practice.