Oregonians May Consider Marriage Equality and Broad Religious Exemptions

By Sunnivie Brydum

Originally published on Advocate.com February 03 2014 1:46 PM ET

When Oregon voters go to the ballot box this November, they're likely to see two LGBT-related initiatives before them: one that would establish marriage equality in the state, and another that would allow privately owned businesses providing services to the public to refuse to serve a same-sex wedding. An initiative to make Oregon the next state to enact marriage equality and repeal the state's ban on same-sex marriage has reportedly already secured more than enough signatures to qualify for the ballot

If passed, the sweeping religious exemption would allow florists, bakeries, and other businesses that serve the public to turn away same-sex couples based on the owner's religious beliefs, according to Reuters

The proposed ballot initiative, which supporters call the Oregon initiative, would essentially override portions of the state's existing nondiscrimination law, which currently prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, even though marriage equality is not yet the law of the land in Oregon.

Nevertheless, supporters say the bill is necessary to "protect" the "religious freedom" of business owners who want to refuse service to gay and lesbian people. Those groups cite the recent case of a bakery in Gresham, Ore., which a judge recently determined violated state law by refusing to bake a cake for a lesbian couple's wedding, but gladly accepted orders for cakes celebrating divorce, pagan ceremonies, and cloning. 

"We wanted to make sure that, no matter which way marriage is defined in Oregon, that folks who hold a view based on their faith that marriage is between one man and one woman are not going to be discriminated against or be silenced for declining to participate in same-sex weddings," Teresa Harke of the conservative group Friends of Religious Freedom told Reuters. 

The antigay Oregon initiative has yet to qualify for the ballot, notes Reuters, but it isn't the only effort in the U.S. hoping to expand religious exemptions to allow faithful individuals the ability to deny services to people based on sexual orientation. Just last month, a bill that would have allowed clergy to refuse to be involved with a same-sex union died in a South Dakota Senate committee, after lawmakers acknowledged that existing religious freedoms already protect a clergymember from being compelled to bless a ceremony that contradicts that person's religious doctrine. Companion legislation that hoped to provide similar protections to religious individuals who run a business is expected to be withdrawn as well, according to local TV station KELO.

Indeed, James Esseks of the American Civil Liberties Union anticipates that efforts to expand religious exemptions will become an ongoing battle as marriage equality continues to spread nationwide. 

"This is not a sideshow issue," Esseks told Reuters. "This is going to be the issue that we fight about for the next ten years, at least, in the LGBT rights movement."