Friday, April 29, 2005

Gov. Kulongoski on civil unions

We don’t need no piece of paper
From the city hall
Keeping us tied and true

Joni Mitchell

That was the 1970s, but it has become a sudden and urgent need among homosexuals for that piece of paper from the city hall.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and at least some of the Legislature are trying to give it to them.

In November, Oregon (Oregon!) passed a constitutional amendment clarifying that when we're talking about marriage in our state, we mean one man and one woman -- and not various alternative configurations. The tally was 57% in favor of the traditional marriage format and 43% against.

The clarification became necessary because a handful of Multnomah County (site of Portland, Oregon's largest city) Commissioners met behind closed doors (but definitely not in a smoke-filled room -- although medical marijuana is legal in this state, I have no reason to believe any of the commissioners had a prescription for it) and decided that the phrase passed in 1969 wasn't exactly clear about the required combinations of men and women in marriage.

The issue went to the people, and the people, surprisingly, voted to maintain the traditional definition.

When the Oregon Supreme Court failed to strike down the law, the governor and his allies turned to the Legislature.

I've been interested in a discussion of civil unions, because while I don't believe two people of the same sex can be married (a matter of definition, tradition, the fundamental structure of most multicellular animal life on this planet), I'm also enough of a libertarian to consider facilitating legal documents such as inheritance, survivor benefits, joint ownership and so forth for people who are not married but living together long-term (which would include siblings, parents and children, Platonic friends, as well as homosexual couples).

Well, our governor opened the discussion of civil unions in Oregon by admitting that they're a back door to gay marriage. (I received the entire text of the speech as a press release, but it hasn't appeared on his website, yet. If it doesn't, I'll make it available. E-mail me if you want to see it.) It's long, and I'm skipping down to the part about civil unions.

He opens by talking about "gay rights": "Privacy, liberty, dignity, and equality -- not bigotry -- are what this country is really all about." Noticed that only one of these is in the founding documents; one is a product of late-20th-century exploration of the emanations of the penumbra of the Constitution; one is part of a French Revolution slogan that was never in the U.S. Constitution; and the other is a character trait that history has shown, no one can either give or take away from a person.

Oregon is a very homosexual-friendly place. There are prominent, public homosexuals in all levels of government and industry. At my daughter's middle school one year, a teacher stood up in the orientation assembly and announced that she was a lesbian and hoped all the kids were OK with that. It's true that not everyone considers the homosexual lifestyle copacetic, but what some "victim" groups don't understand is that everybody is disliked by somebody.

So, skipping the first two-thirds of the governor's speech to Basic Rights Oregon, April 27:
As everyone in this room knows, Senate Bill 1000 has two parts. The first is the anti-discrimination provisions that I’ve been talking about. The second is the creation of civil unions in Oregon.

I want you to understand: It is the policy of my administration -- and my deep personal belief -- that creating civil unions for gays and lesbians is no less important than ending discrimination against gays and lesbians. As far as I’m concerned, they stand on the same moral plane.

It is also my deep personal belief -- as well as my view as a lawyer and former Oregon Supreme Court justice -- that denying same sex couples the benefits and protections accorded to opposite sex couples violates the Oregon Constitution. The Oregon Legislature now has the opportunity to remedy that violation by providing same sex couples all of the legal benefits and protections accorded to opposite sex couples.

I know that there is disappointment -- even anger -- among many BRO members over the passage of Measure 36. Defining marriage in the Constitution is wrong for Oregon. I opposed it last year -- and I still oppose it. But we should not let our long-term goal of undoing Measure 36 stand in the way of our more immediate goal of according equality of rights and benefits to same-sex and opposite-sex couples. And we don’t have to.

The Oregon Supreme Court did not answer the question as to whether the Oregon Constitution requires civil unions. However, the Court clearly left the door open for the Legislature to create civil unions. And, frankly, that’s their responsibility. The Legislature can fulfill this responsibility by approving and sending to my desk Senate Bill 1000. This is an opportunity they must not miss!

SB 1000 sets up a legislative structure for civil unions that mirrors, almost word for word, the legislative structure for marriage. Civil unions are not perfect equality. I understand that. But civil unions will provide the same benefits, protections and responsibilities that are incident to marriage -- and will align Oregon with Vermont and Connecticut, and put us light years ahead of every other state except Massachusetts. Let me explain what I mean by “same benefits, protections, and responsibilities.” This is what Section 67(1) of SB 1000 says: “Partners in a civil union have the same privileges, immunities, rights, benefits, and responsibilities under the laws of this state, whether derived from statute, administrative or court rule, policy or common law, as are granted to or imposed on spouses joined in a marriage.”

And Section 67(5)(a) says: “Whenever the term ‘marriage’ or any other term that denotes or includes the marital relationship or the status of marriage is used in the laws of this state, the term includes a civil union.”

This language is sweeping, and it has real practical effect. To take some of the more obvious examples: Civil unions will require a state issued license and can be solemnized by a member of the clergy or a county clerk.
Have you got that, Oregonians? You voted for the marriage amendment, but Kulongoski and the Legislature waited hardly six months before beginning a work-around.
Civil unions will give gay and lesbian partners the same right to make end of life decisions as married spouses. The same right to workers’ compensation survivor benefits and to collect insurance proceeds. The same right to statutorily guaranteed health and disability benefits. The same right to create a family and parent children. The same right to protection under Oregon’s intestacy statutes. The same right to sue to for wrongful death that spouses currently have. And, yes, the same right to dissolve the union with the help of lawyers and the courts.
Wait, didn't he use the term "committed couples" above?
I ended my list by mentioning lawyers for a reason. The whole issue of same-sex marriage and civil unions is practically drowning in a sea of legalisms and legal strategies. That’s true for all three branches of government. I’ve had my say. The Attorney General has had his say. The courts have had their say. And the Legislature -- as it debates SB 1000 -- will have its say.

But what we’ve been debating for the past year is not just about constitutional theory, legal analysis, separation of powers, and who has the best legal argument on their side. This is about the human heart -- and being free to answer its call.

It is hard for me to imagine what my life would like without this freedom. But it is not hard for me to understand how fundamentally unfair it is to deny this freedom to others. To tell another human being: Your longings don’t matter. Your choice of who to love is illegitimate. Your family isn’t a socially acceptable family. All of this is wrong -- and I think ultimately hurts not just gays and lesbians, but our entire community.
It is not the job of the State to validate people's feelings. Some people think heterosexual love is illegitimate. Some people think Christians are enemies of society, and some people think space aliens have landed. The only way to guarantee that homosexuals -- or anybody -- will never feel rejection is to organize the Thought Police.
Fredrick Douglas once said, “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.” Bigotry against homosexuals is not slavery. But it is a chain that keeps both gays and non-gays from moving forward.
The fact that Gov. Ted cites and yet apparently doesn't understand the difference between a literal shackle and a metaphor run wild is troubling in itself. So the chain is tying gays and lesbians to -- what? Kept from moving forward -- where? Held back in what condition?
We need to break that chain -- and free ourselves from the burden of trying to dictate the wants of another person’s heart.
The only one I see dictating here is Gov. Ted.
It is wasted energy that could be much better spent rewarding all committed relationships,
Wait, I thought he wanted them to be able to get divorced
which will in turn improve Oregon’s quality of life by making our children healthier, our communities safer, and our spirits pointed in the direction that I believe they are intended to point, toward finding greater unity among the human family by ensuring greater equality among all its members.

Thank you.
And thank you, Gov. Kulongoski, for clarifying the civil unions debate for us.

UPDATE: This post is also at Blogger News Network.

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