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Oregon activists
will fight to keep civil unions in spotlight

Oregon activists
will fight to keep civil unions in spotlight

Oregon lawmakers couldn't agree on one of the biggest issues during the 2005 session--civil unions for same-sex couples. The legislature is adjourned now, but that issue isn't going away any time soon. Gay rights activists say they are already looking at their next steps, which could include taking the civil unions issue directly to voters and targeting house speaker Karen Minnis and other civil union opponents in the 2006 legislative races.

Hundreds of people attended emotional public hearings that preceded the Oregon senate's passage of a bill sought by Gov. Ted Kulongoski to let gay couples form civil unions, which would have allowed them to gain most of the benefits of marriage. The measure was stopped cold in the house, where house speaker Karen Minnis and other Republicans argued that the bill would violate the spirit of a constitutional ban on gay marriage, which was enacted by Oregon voters last fall.

Members of Basic Rights Oregon, the state's leading gay rights group, will spend the next month or so formulating plans for a continuation of the battle. "We are not giving up, and we are not going away," said Roey Thorpe, the group's executive director.

One possible option being considered is to take the civil unions issue to voters as an initiative measure next year, Thorpe said. The downside of that strategy is that a ballot measure campaign dealing with gay rights could be "costly and divisive," she said. On the other hand, public opinion polls have shown growing public support for allowing civil unions, she added. "A ballot measure might not have been a reasonable option a few years ago, but it might become one now," Thorpe said.

Any such initiative campaign likely would encounter tough resistance from the group that led the effort to ban same-sex marriage in last November's election. The Defense of Marriage Coalition, which was formed by the Oregon Family Council, showed its political horsepower last year when it gathered 244,000 petition signatures in just five weeks to place the same-sex marriage ban before voters in November.

Tim Nashif, political director for the Family Council, indicated the group would put the same amount of effort into a campaign to defeat anything similar to the senate bill, which he said was worded so broadly and amended so many existing statutes that the civil unions would have been "marriage by another name."

"If they put something like Senate Bill 1000 on the ballot, we are going to make sure Oregonians are educated about what it does," Nashif said.

Thorpe, meanwhile, said Basic Rights Oregon is also looking at getting more involved in legislative races next year, both in helping lawmakers who were sympathetic to the civil unions bill and working to defeat those who opposed it--especially Minnis, the house speaker. "It should come as no great surprise if we decide to target the one person who stood between right and wrong," Thorpe said of Minnis. (AP)

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