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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 28 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 09
Oregon and the new Jim Crow - Same-sex marriage fight shifts to discrimination measure
Section One
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Oregon and the new Jim Crow - Same-sex marriage fight shifts to discrimination measure

by Denis C. Theriault
Portland Mercury
Special to the SGN

On February 20, in a compact legal filing, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum shook Oregon's political bedrock with an announcement she wouldn't defend the state's 10-year-old constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in federal court.

Joining a federal appellate ruling earlier this year that attaches 'heightened scrutiny' to LGBTQ discrimination cases - akin to a legal power boost, sources say - Rosenblum's decision all but paves the way for a favorable ruling on marriage equality as soon as April.

It's looking good enough that the coalition pushing to overturn the state's ban with a ballot measure this fall, Oregon United for Marriage, decided to suspend its campaign while it waits and watches.

'This all suggests the court should move swiftly in Oregon,' says Evan Wolfson, head of the national group Freedom to Marry.

That would be a hard-fought victory - and achieved with far less expense and effort than a state ballot fight in November. But it's not the only potential good news to spill from Rosenblum's stratagem.

Potentially freed from having to spend the next few months selling voters on same-sex marriage - already backed by 55 percent of Oregonians in a recent poll - advocates can devote themselves instead to killing another affront to equality quietly lurking in the shadows: the Protect Religious Freedom Initiative, meant for the ballot this fall.

Filed in November by the Oregon Family Council, the initiative would let businesses lawfully refuse to provide any services that might be used to further a same-sex wedding or civil union ceremony. Put another way, advocates say, the measure would essentially allow legal discrimination.

Oregon United for Marriage says it's looking to use cash and staff it had already been marshalling for the marriage fight as part of a statewide blitz meant to prevent the Oregon Family Council from even gathering enough signatures to qualify its measure for the ballot.

'Treating people differently based on who they are is discrimination,' says Peter Zuckerman, spokesman for Oregon United for Marriage. 'Religious freedom is a fundamental part of America. It's already written into our state's constitution. But beliefs don't entitle any of us to discriminate against others.'

Before Oregon Family Council sends out petitioners, it's got to agree on how the measure will be described for voters. It's accused the state attorney general's office of adding loaded words like 'discrimination.' Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation and Basic Rights Oregon, meanwhile, are calling for the attorney general's office to be even more blunt about the measure.

The measure's primary sponsor, Teresa Harke of Oregon Family Council, did not return a call seeking comment as of press time.

Locally, the measure follows state punishment of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, a Gresham bakery that refused to bake a cake for a same-sex couple.

But the measure is among a handful of attempts nationally to seek legal limits on discrimination in the name of religion - sweeping bills in Arizona and Kansas being more infamous examples.

And Oregon's is the only one that would actually go before voters - making it a bellwether that, if it's successful, could be repeated in other states.

'This is part of a concerted right-wing agenda,' says Wolfson. 'We've seen this time and time again in civil rights struggles in history. This is Oregon's version of this same battle. And it absolutely needs to be fought.'

Originally printed in the Portland Mercury on February 26, 2014. Reprinted with permission.

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