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Picking protection, not perfection

Gay Oregonians need civil unions, as well as safeguards from discrimination in housing and employment.

Last week, a remarkable thing happened in Connecticut. The Legislature approved civil unions for gays and lesbians without any judicial nudging -- simply because it was the right thing to do.

The Oregon Legislature can show the same courageous leadership in this session by approving Senate Bill 1000. It would create Vermont-style civil unions, offering gay Oregonians legal protections for their families, mirroring the rights and responsibilities married couples possess under state law.

Senate Bill 1000 would also ban discrimination against gays and lesbians when they seek housing, jobs or service in public places. Although it's hard to believe, circa 2005, gays and lesbians do face discrimination in all of these arenas. It's ugly, it's immoral -- but it's perfectly legal. The Oregon Legislature can make history by outlawing it.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski, speaking Wednesday at a Basic Rights Oregon luncheon, renewed his call for the legislature to do just that. Kulongoski reminded the crowd that the fight for equal rights for gays and lesbians in this state did not begin with last year's imbroglio over gay marriage. In 1975, Kulongoski and Vera Katz co-sponsored a bill in the Oregon House to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. "We lost in the House by one vote," Kulongoski said.

Other bills followed in other legislative sessions but they failed as well. As a result, we may imagine we're living in an Oregon where discrimination is only a bad memory, but we're not. Oregonians can be denied service in a bank or restaurant because they're gay, rejected for housing because they're gay and turned down for a job interview -- or even fired -- because they're gay.

In the long run, this kind of discrimination, which is no longer legal against religious and racial minorities, is legally unsustainable against gays and lesbians, too, Kulongoski said. It's also economically shortsighted and morally wrong, he added. It's a shameful blotch on our state.

Opponents to Senate Bill 1000 will argue that this bill gives gays and lesbians preferential treatment, but it's hard to fathom their reasoning. This bill wouldn't send gays and lesbians to the front of any line; it keeps them from being spat on and yanked from the line. That's not preferential treatment. It's simple decency.

As for civil unions, Kulongoski acknowledged Wednesday that they don't offer "perfect equality" to gay couples. They don't. Yet, since Oregonians have ruled out marriage for gay couples, civil unions do offer them protections roughly equivalent to what married couples have under state law. That's light-years ahead of not offering such protections. Sadly, the fact that the name is different may be enough to keep some people from supporting Senate Bill 1000.

They should reconsider. In Vermont, which invented civil unions, gay-rights supporters were also torn about whether to hold out for marriage or create a parallel system under a different name. They chose the latter.

Over the past five years, Vermont's pioneering compromise has shown many Americans they have nothing to fear from treating gays equally. What a setback it would have been had Vermonters held out for perfection.

Oregonians shouldn't hold out for it, either. Those who endorse the perfect option this year are, in effect, endorsing the do-nothing option.

Instead, the Oregon Legislature should follow Kulongoski's lead and make history by approving Senate Bill 1000. It will give gays and lesbians the strongest possible protections.

In Oregon, it will create something more workable and wonderful than a far-off perfection:

An imperfect equality.

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