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Reciprocal benefits bill: NOT a solution for gay families.

(AP) — Carolyn Weir asked lawmakers Tuesday night to provide both of her sons — one gay and one straight — the same rights.

"Our straight son has a path before him which is unencumbered and filled with state-sanctioned supports for his family, while his gay brother faces a path littered with legally allowed obstacles in his efforts to share his life with the person he loves," the Sisters resident told a House panel that was taking public testimony on a bill that would grant "reciprocal benefits" to nontraditional couples.

The bill, advanced as an alternative to civil unions, would grant a set of about 20 benefits to any two people over age 18, including relatives and same-sex couples. The rights mostly center around property issues and emergency or end-of-life situations.

Weir and gay rights advocates oppose the bill because they say it does nothing to protect gay and lesbian families, and it does not provide gay couples similar benefits and responsibilities of marriage.

But supporters of the bill told the House Judiciary Committee that the bill takes care of nontraditional families without dealing with homosexuality in state law.

Lillian Gonzalez said granting civil unions instead of reciprocal benefits would discriminate against she and her sister Maria, who have been in what she described as a committed relationship for more than 25 years, sharing a home and supporting each other financially.

"It is devastating to know that if she were to die, I would be left with very little, if anything," Gonzalez said.

If the bill were to pass, couples like the Gonzalez sisters could apply for the benefits and be granted the ability to jointly own, inherit or pass on property. They would also be able to obtain medical records, make certain health care decisions and access the other's safe deposit box after death, among other things.

Unlike civil unions, the bill would not grant health insurance benefits or pension benefits to couples. Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, said he combed through marriage rights before writing the bill, and excluded anything that would cost the state money because he feared it would prevent the bill from passing.

The Gonzalez sisters were two of nearly 70 people signed up to testify in the hearing, which Chairman Wayne Krieger, R-Gold Beach, said he hoped would end by 11 p.m. An overflow room was set up so people who couldn't fit in the packed hearing room could still watch the hearing.

Former Rep. Tootie Smith, who works for the Oregon Family Council, said the Senate's civil unions bill — backed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski — is marriage by another name and the House bill will provide gays and lesbians "rights and benefits they did not have easy access to, or any access to, last year, or last week for that matter."

At a press conference before the hearing, Jeanna Frazzini fought back tears as she described how she and her partner of eight years have no legal obligation to each other.

"If my partner lost her job today, and if I were not a better person, I could refuse to support her, even if we remain together," Frazzini said. "She and our child could end up on welfare, a burden on the state, but the state would have no right to seek support from me."

Under the bill considered by the House, Frazzini and her partner could apply for reciprocal benefits, but it would have no effect over parental rights of their 15-month-old son.

The reciprocal benefits union could also be terminated on short notice by either member, or would be ended automatically if one were to get married.

J Graigory, son of Rep. Donna Nelson, R-McMinnville, appeared at the press conference and the hearing to speak against the bill.

Graigory, who is gay, said most members of his family have barely spoken to him since the 2004 election, when Nelson said she favored banning gay marriage and, in response, Graigory announced publicly that he is gay.

Graigory traveled from California to tell Oregon lawmakers that the reciprocal benefits bill is "demeaning, inadequate and unfair," and that the civil unions bill would be better for everyone.


By NIKI SULLIVAN
The Associated Press
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