Oregonians United For Equality

Kyle Curtis Facebook

Oregonians United For Equality

What a difference ten years makes.

This past February, polling results distributed by Basic Rights Oregon showed that a record number of Oregonians support marriage equality, with 55 percent of respondents agreeing that every Oregon citizen should be able to marry whoever they love regardless of sexual orientation. However, for this majority view to become law, the discriminatory constitutional amendment that prohibits gay and lesbian Oregonians from marrying their partners needs to be repealed, despite being voted into law by Oregon voters when Measure 36 was passed by 57 percent in the 2004 election.

The ten-year old measure that signed state-sponsored bigotry against same-sex couples into Oregon’s constitution was part of a concerted effort in 2004 to place anti-gay marriage initiatives on the ballot of swing states, with the hopes that a large bloc of conservative voters would turn out and help buoy George W. Bush’s re-election bid. Oregon bucked the trend, however, as the state remained solidly on the blue side of the ledger and voting against George W. Bush—while still passing the amendment banning same-sex marriage.

(The 2004 election was a rare example of cognitive dissonance happening by liberal-leaning voters. I knocked on doors in support of John Kerry that fall, and would continually be surprised when the respondent voiced their opposition for Bush despite having a pro-Measure 36 sign in their yard. I continually had to fight back the urge to ask if I could remove that sign for them.)

Fast forward ten years, and the passage of a ballot initiative allowing same-sex marriage is practically guaranteed, one of the bright spots in this upcoming election year for progressive voters in Oregon who support the notions of freedom and equality. Any time steps are taken to provide expanded rights to a previously marginalized group—particularly when such rights are granted by a privileged majority—bodes well for the arc of the moral universe’s continual bend towards justice. The swing in popular opinion by Oregon voters towards the issue—from the same amount of voters opposed to marriage equality who are know in favor—makes me proud to be an Oregonian. What a difference ten years makes, indeed.

Switch From Marriage Equality to Opposing Religious Discrimination

Despite the large plurality of Oregon voters in favor of marriage equality, a couple of funny things happened on the way to Oregon voters tossing bigotry out of the state's constitution. First, with the large number of Oregon voters in favor of marriage equality, the Defense of Marriage Coalition--which backed Measure 36’s successful challenge in 2004—are nowhere to be seen, all but relenting the ballot initiative’s successful passage in November. Instead, Friends of Religious Liberty are the new kids on the block, seeking to move the fight beyond same sex marriage to the issue of whether businesses should be able to legally discriminate against gays and lesbians. And second, a potentially successful legal challenge to the state's constitutional ban may supersede the marriage equality initiative campaign currently underway, with the desired result achieved through judicial decision opposed to at the ballot box.

The religious discrimination ballot initiative would be similar to the legislation passed into law by GOP-controlled statehouses in Arizona (where it was vetoed) and Mississippi (where it received support of the governor), these religious discrimination bills have been referred to as “wedding cake” bills due to the finding against a Gresham bakery that was found to have violated a lesbian couple’s civil rights when it refused to bake a cake for the couple’s wedding. (Ironically, a recent study by UCLA finds that marriage equality in Oregon would generate a $47.3 million economic boom to the state, a significant portion of which would be in the wedding business sector. It seems self-defeating for a business to actively prevent its involvement in such a potential boom that they could only benefit directly from.I guess I'm just not cut out for business.)

Currently gathering signatures for a ballot initiative push—a different tack then the legislative route adopted in Arizona and Mississippi—the supporters of the religious discrimination initiative points out an exception in the proposed marriage equality imitative that allowing religious institutions to refuse to engage in a same-sex marriage ceremony. But according to Peter Zuckerman, Press Secretary for Oregon United for Marriage Oregon, this explanation simply amounts to a pile of weasel words. Whereas the exception in the marriage equality bill respectfully prevents churches from being forced to administer a wedding ceremony that goes against their beliefs, the potential religious discrimination bill would, according to Zuckerman, “allow businesses to turn people away because of who they are and who they love. And treating people differently is discrimination, plain and simple.”

Why It's So Important to Vote Against Discrimination

Oregon is one of the first states in which backers of these religious discrimination laws are attempting to use the ballot initiative process. If successful, supporters will claim that legal discrimination of homosexuals is supported by a majority will of the voters and would serve as a step towards creating a model that would then be exported to other states. For this reason, the religious discrimination bill doesn’t necessarily even need to pass to be considered a “success” just as long as the vote is close. According to Zuckerman, this is why the coalition in support of United for Marriage are marshaling its resources and deliver a resounding defeat to any efforts to pass a religious discrimination initiative at the ballot box. “We need to defeat discrimination so badly, with a big enough margin, that we could stop it from spreading,” Zuckerman explains.

The strategy of pursuing a ballot initiative allowing discrimination against homosexuals might be questioned when the passing of a marriage equality initiative is practically a foregone conclusion. Perhaps the supporters of the religious discrimination initiative are seeking to muddy the waters, and instead of voting for either “yes” or “no” to both initiatives, gay rights supporters would need to be able to remember to vote in favor of one initiative and against the other. And it’s only been in the past few months that the polling has really shifted in favor of passing the marriage equality initiative. “When we started gathering signatures, the polling was really close on same sex marriage,” Zuckerman says. “Over the last eight months, we have a seen a lead of 3-4 points grow into a lead of 14 points."

While a large voter turn-out in favor of marriage equality would bode well for the defeat of religious discrimination at the ballot box, there is a conceivable chance that Oregon voters may not even be able to decide on same-sex marriage at all. Next week, oral arguments will begin on the legal challenge to the amendment in the state’s constitution that prohibits same-sex marriage. (Vigils will be held the night before the arguments are held for those looking to show support. If you'd like to find one near you, click here.) Although the determination of a legal timeline that includes both a judicial review and ruling are anybody’s guess at this point—but there is a distinct chance that the U.S. District Court of Oregon may strike down the state’s gay marriage ban that was enacted with the passage of Measure 36 ten years ago.

Why Both a Campaign Initiative And Also a Legal Challenge?

When Basic Rights Oregon and other supporters of gay marriage targeted 2014 as the year to pass marriage equality in Oregon, the only available option at the time was to collect the necessary number of signatures to place an initiative on the ballot. However, the ability challenge to Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage in court was only made possible with the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the challenge to California’s similar Proposition 8. Shortly after the ruling, gay marriage supporters in Oregon identified the benefits of pursuing a parallel path and filed a legal challenge, in hopes that a swift ruling—in their favor, of course—would pre-empt a campaign to pass a ballot measure in the fall. “Campaigns are financially, emotionally, and politically expensive,” Zuckerman says. Members of the GLBTQ community would receive undue attention and be repeatedly attacked on the airwaves by those opposing the ballot measure. “You do not want to go through that and lose. Which is why Basic Rights Oregon was unwilling to go forward without a reasonable chance that the measure would pass.”

A veteran of the successful campaign to pass same-sex marriage in Washington State in 2012—which, along with Minnesota became one of the first two states to pass gay marriage at the ballot box—Zuckerman was pressed to offer a prognostication of the outcome of Oregon United For Marriage’s efforts. Zuckerman is cautiously optimistic that marriage equality will ultimately prevail, based on his experience in Washington. “Throughout the Washington campaign, I thought we weren’t going to win. I was surprised to win.”

One indication Zuckerman provides in support of the passage of marriage equality is the embrace of the issue by state Republicans, citing the endorsement of the measure by the two leading GOP candidates for Senate at the recent Dorchester Republican conference. Zuckerman admits that winning over Republicans to ensure bipartisan support was an intentional strategy conducted by gay marriage supporters, with a libertarian-honed message that everyone should be able to marry who they choose. This supplanted the previous messaging that same-sex partners should be granted the equal right to get married. In fact, Zuckerman suggests that if conservative voters have an opportunity to vote on this issue, they should vote in favor of same-sex marriage. “Think about it: approving same-sex marriage aligns with true conservative ideals,” Zuckerman explains. “It would be a vote in favor of freedom for everyone, treating others as you’d want to be treated, and a vote in opposition of discrimination.”

How To Get Involved!

With the election months away, Zuckerman describes information on how marriage equality and gay rights supporters can provide assistance to Oregon United for Marriage. “Make people know about the discrimination measure,” says Zuckerman. “Don’t let them try to pass this under the radar. Spread the word to your friends, family, neighbors that you oppose discrimination. If you want, sign up to volunteer at our headquarters in Northeast Portland, with offices opening throughout the state depending on the outcome of the legal challenge. If people are able to donate money, that would be helpful. Campaigns cost a lot of money and we are not going to win if we don’t raise funds!”

This election year, there is an opportunity to show how far Oregon has come in just ten short years. This election year we Oregon voters have an opportunity to vote in favor of love and against discrimination. If you are interested in getting involved to make this a reality, please contact United for Marriage.

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