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Governor Kulongoski: There is no middle ground between right and wrong!

Our Governor delivered a very powerful speech today at the Basic Rights Oregon 12th Annual Luncheon Against Discrimination. Here is a transcript of his speech.

Oregonians Against Discrimination Luncheon: Remarks by Oregon Gov. Kulongoski.

Thank you Roey for your introduction, and for leaving the steep hills of Ithaca, New York to come here and climb an even tougher hill – ending discrimination, once and for all, against Oregon’s gay, lesbian and transgender community.

I also want to thank and congratulate Michael Powell and Sho Dozono for being honored to today for their leadership in ending workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The same congratulations go to all of the Oregon businesses that are working to end discrimination – many of whom, I know, have joined the Fair Workplace Project.

I would be remiss if I didn't recognize two people who have been very important to me both in my political life and personally – Don Powell and Terry Bean.

Finally I offer a special thanks to Senator Kate Brown. Kate is a friend. An ally. A trusted confidant. And a truly great leader – not only for Oregon’s gay and lesbian community, but for all Oregonians. Most of all, she is a wonderful human being.

I want you to know that I’m very proud to be here today – and to have this chance to talk to the members and friends of Basic Rights Oregon. We go back a long way. I know many of you personally. You’ve stood with me in my many runs for public office – and we’ve stood together on the side of fairness and equality. That will not change.

As most of you know, when I was a very young man I joined the Marines. Marines like to call themselves the “tip of the spear” – the first into battle and the first take incoming fire.

I’ve thought for a long time that Basic Rights Oregon is the tip of a different kind of spear: You are first into the battle for justice – and the first to take incoming fire from people who insist on defending the indefensible.

So the fight for justice and equality is never easy. It takes patience to educate the public – and a lot of courage to stand up for what’s right. But that’s what Basic Rights Oregon has always done. And when the walls of resistance start to crumble – as inevitably they do – our entire nation wins.

That’s why I think Basic Rights Oregon is one of the most important organizations in this state. Not simply because you’re fighting for a particular cause that I have long believed in. But because you are one of Oregon’s strongest – and most effective – voices for fundamental American values.

Privacy, liberty, dignity, and equality – not bigotry – are what this country is really all about. And they’re what Oregon must be about.

The reason is simple: To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, a threat to anyone’s basic rights is a threat to everyone’s basic rights. That is why the reach of your activism – and your pursuit of equal treatment under law – is critical not only for the gay community, but for all Oregonians.

So although they may not know it, even your opponents benefit from your tireless insistence that what George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm has no place here.

We must never – and I mean never – accept the proposition that all Oregonians are equal but some Oregonians are more equal than others! Until that proposition is laid to rest once and for all, I pledge to you – I will not rest.

That means, together, we are going to continue this fight day after day, year after year, legislative session after legislative session – for as long it takes until we achieve victory.

As Roey pointed out – I have been in this battle with you for my entire public career. I was actually the keynote speaker at the first Right to Privacy dinner in 1981, which was named after Lucille Hart. But my support for gay and lesbian rights in Oregon goes back even further.

In 1975, I introduced and helped lead the fight for House Bill 2288, which was the first bill in Oregon to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. It’s also important to mention that the co-sponsor of that legislation was Vera Katz. We lost in the House by one vote.

In 1977 two anti-discrimination bills were introduced. And in 1979 – my first year in the Senate – there were six more. All failed to become law.

A lot has changed in my life – and the life of this state – in the last three decades. But one thing that hasn’t changed is my core belief that government has no business making judgments about which committed relationships between two adults should be favored – and which should be disfavored.

All committed couples deserve to be respected – and are owed a zone of privacy which neither government – nor employers – should be allowed to intrude on.

That is why I have fought so hard – and for so long – to end legal discrimination against gays and lesbians in Oregon. That is why sexual orientation has never been a factor in my appointments or hiring from the Oregon Supreme Court, to my staff, to any other position
in state government. And that’s why I co-sponsored – and will fight very hard to pass – Senate Bill 1000.

I’ll talk more about the SB 1000 in a moment. But the important point is: I have never needed convincing that discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgenders is legally unsustainable, economically shortsighted, and morally wrong.

And since I first became involved with this issue, I have never understood why anyone else should need convincing either. Unfortunately, many people – including some in the Legislature – do need convincing.

So let me once again lay out the case. We must add sexual orientation to state laws that prohibit discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations for three reasons.

First – because those who claim that discrimination no longer exists are simply wrong. This is not about so-called “special” rights – and never has been. That language is both infuriating and willfully misleading.

This is about protecting the basic right not to be turned down or fired from a job. Not to be told an apartment has already been taken when it is still on the market. And not to be denied service at restaurants, financial institutions or any other business that serves the public.

Gays and lesbians in Oregon still face this kind of bigotry. That’s bad enough. But to say that the law should turn a blind eye to ongoing discrimination – or cannot be strengthened to protect a class of people long treated a second-class citizens is simply wrong.

The second reason we must make sexual orientation part of our anti-discrimination statutes is because we can’t afford not to.

I’ve been Governor for over two years, and I’ve said from the beginning that my highest priority is to grow Oregon’s economy. This is the only way we’ll have more money for our public schools. It is the only way we’ll be able to reverse a decade of disinvestment in higher education. It is the only way we’ll be able to match the skills of employees with the needs of employers. And it is the only way we’ll be able to retain existing businesses and attract new ones.

The question is: What does it take to grow the economy?

The list is long – from a strong manufacturing base to an educated workforce. But at the very top of the list is a commitment to tap the creativity, skills and energy of all of our people.

We cannot afford to ignore or lose the talents of tens of thousands of Oregonians whose sexual orientation happens to be different than the majority of our citizens. Diversity and equality of opportunity make us stronger – not weaker.

We don’t move ahead by leaving others behind. We move ahead by affirming that we really are one Oregon – with one common destiny.

Which brings me to the third and most important reason why we must pass anti-discrimination legislation this year: It is morally unacceptable not to.

I often call Oregon “America’s Promise Land” because of our extraordinary natural beauty. But America’s great promise is not just found in the physical majesty of our mountains, rivers and coastline. There is also the majesty of our values and principles.

These values and principles affirm that we are all created equal. That we are a nation governed by the rule of law – not the whim of rulers. And that who we are – and the sexual orientation we start with in life – should not stand in the way of how far we reach in life.

As I told the Legislature on the first day of the session: Opportunity must be an open door through which every citizen can pass, not a revolving door that turns for some and doesn’t budge for others. Those words were greeted with loud applause. But now is the time for the Legislature to stop clapping and start acting.

After thirty years of trying to pass an anti-discrimination law, words of support and good intentions aren’t good enough anymore.

What matters now is moving the bill and lining up the votes we need to put Oregon where it has always belonged – on the side of equality, human dignity, and social justice. On this issue – there is no middle ground between right and wrong.

That means, until we do what’s right, a moral wrong that could have been – and should have been – corrected decades ago will remain a stain on the character of the state all of us love.

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. Putting discrimination 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. 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.

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 to this point 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.

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.

We need to break that chain – and free ourselves from the burden of trying to dictate the wants of another person’s heart.

It is wasted energy that could be much better spent rewarding all committed relationships, 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.
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