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Yesterday's Civil Unions Hearing Draws a Crowd

Liz Cahill took a personal day from her teaching job last year to travel to Multnomah County and marry Diane Groff, the woman she said she loves more than life itself.

Their marriage license since voided by the Oregon Supreme Court, the Milton-Freewater couple took another personal day Wednesday to ask a Senate panel to pass a civil unions and anti-discrimination bill, so that they could again have a legally recognized relationship.

"Community members have visited and written letters to our administration demanding we be fired because we are lesbians," Cahill told the Senate Rules Committee. "The fact that there is no legal recognition of our relationship emboldens this vocal part of the majority population."

Cahill and Groff were joined by hundreds of others at the state Capitol for sometimes emotional testimony on Gov. Ted Kulongoski's bill to create civil unions for same sex couples and prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The Democratic governor's bill has bipartisan support in the Senate, but there is resistance to the idea in the Republican-controlled House.

Supporters say Senate Bill 1000 is a fair way of providing gays and lesbians the same rights as anyone else. Opponents, however, say it is unnecessary and trumps the will of voters who approved Measure 36 last fall. The measure revised Oregon's Constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Sen. Charles Starr, R-Hillsboro, said the bill would make employers susceptible to lawsuits if they fired a homosexual, even if they didn't know the employee's sexual identity.

Supporters of the bill — gathered in one of three overflow rooms — scoffed and shook their heads at Starr's comments. Throughout the evening's testimony, onlookers gathered around spare televisions and could be heard cheering, booing or clapping in response to different witnesses.

Starr said homosexuality was a lifestyle choice that should not be recognized by the law.

"You would do a very large disservice to our state and to our people in the passage of Senate Bill 1000," Starr said.

Herb Grey, a Beaverton lawyer, said the bill would not prevent discrimination against gays, but would instead give them special rights. [Don't they mean equal rights?]

"It will inevitably come at the price of creating special rights for a small minority while institutionalizing discrimination against people and institutions of faith," Grey said. He added that the anti-discrimination aspect of the bill would also cause a flood of litigation and would require public education against discriminating gays and lesbians.

Roey Thorpe of Basic Rights Oregon disagreed, contending that Oregonians voted for Measure 36 thinking that civil unions were a possibility.

"Those who don't support discrimination but who weren't ready to support same-sex marriage were made to believe that they could vote yes and not cause significant harm," Thorpe said.

The governor's wife, Mary Oberst, made her first appearance before lawmakers, testifying in favor of the bill.

"In effect, without Senate Bill 1000, we are telling these citizens that they can give but not receive," she said. "They can give Oregon their tax dollars, they can give Oregon their votes ... but they cannot depend on receiving equal treatment."

The gay marriage debate in Oregon began just over a year ago, when Multnomah County began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Soon after, the county was ordered to stop, but not before 3,000 marriage licenses had been granted.

Voters passed Measure 36 in the fall and, in April, the Oregon Supreme Court threw out the Multnomah County marriage licenses, saying it was not within the county's rights to issue them.

Kulongoski's bill would grant same-sex couples the same rights under civil unions that married couples get through marriage.

In response to civil unions, some Republicans have proposed a "reciprocal benefits" bill, which would grant a select list of rights — like hospital visitation — to any two adults who apply for them, including siblings and roommates.

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