The group that led the effort to ban same-sex marriage in Oregon in last fall's election has a new target: Gov. Ted Kulongoski's bid to extend antidiscrimination protections to gays. Kulongoski, in his January 10 State of the State address, listed as a high priority winning passage of a statewide ban on discrimination against gays in employment, housing, and public accommodations.
Tim Nashif, head of both the Oregon Family Council and the Oregon Defense of Marriage Coalition, said that he and his supporters will now turn their attention to scuttling the Democratic governor's bill in the 2005 legislature. Nashif said there's no proof discrimination exists against gays and lesbians in Oregon, except possibly in "isolated" instances, and that Kulongoski's bill would result in frivolous lawsuits. "They are creating a problem where none exists," Nashif said.
But gay rights activists, Democratic legislators, and a state civil rights official say Oregon should join 14 other states that offer antidiscrimination protections to gays and lesbians. Eight Oregon cities and two of the state's counties have local ordinances offering such protection to gays as well.
Backers of Kulongoski's bill say there are documented cases of gays and lesbians being harassed on the job or being denied a place to live because of their sexual orientation. Amy Klare, head of the civil rights section of the state Bureau of Labor and Industries, said 144 such complaints have been received in the past five years--most involving alleged workplace discrimination or harassment.
In five cases, Klare said, there was "substantial evidence" of discrimination. The cases were resolved by the offender agreeing not to engage in similar conduct and, in some cases, making financial payment to victims. In 30 other cases, people filing the complaints later withdrew them to pursue the matter in civil court, Klare said.
The rest of the discrimination complaints couldn't be substantiated, Klare said, although in many cases that only meant that the victim couldn't produce a witness or other evidence to back up their claim.
"All forms of discrimination are alive and well in this state, especially in little pockets around the state," Klare said.
A Portland lesbian, Erika Lira, said she believes she was prevented from renting an apartment at a complex in the southwest outskirts of Portland because of her sexual orientation. Lira said that when she inquired about an apartment, the property manager told her nothing was available. Lira said when she asked a more straight-looking friend to make a similar inquiry, the woman was told that several units were available. "I definitely feel that they treated me differently because I am a lesbian," she said. "I remember crying and thinking, 'This isn't fair, and there's nothing I can do about it.' "
Kulongoski said state law should be clear that no one should be fired from a job or denied a loan or a place to live because they are gay or lesbian. "That's just basic fairness for everybody," the governor said in an interview this past week.
A spokeswoman for Basic Rights Oregon, the state's leading gay rights group, said she believes Oregonians would support the antidiscrimination bill even though they voted in favor of Measure 36, the ban on same-sex marriage, in last November's election. "There are a lot of people who voted for Measure 36 who at the same time think discrimination against gays and lesbian is wrong," Rebekah Kassell said.
Although Kulongoski's bill does not address the controversial issue of same-sex marriage, it would represent a key expansion of gay rights under state law.
Senate president Peter Courtney said at least two other nondiscrimination bills will be introduced by Democratic senators, although Kulongoski gave the issue major momentum by highlighting it in his State of the State address. "Obviously, it's now very high-profile because of the governor's speech," the Salem Democrat said. "But I can't predict how it's going to go right now."
An antidiscrimination bill is expected to win approval in the Democrat-controlled senate. It could face big problems in the house, where Republicans hold a 33-27 advantage over Democrats.