Despite growing pressure from Democrats and gay rights activists, Karen Minnis, a Republican and speaker of the Oregon House, said Wednesday she has no intention of allowing a House vote on a bill allowing civil unions for same-sex couples.
In an interview, Minnis said Oregonians decided the issue last fall when they joined with voters in 10 other states in passing gay marriage bans.
"This issue has been greatly discussed; it's been voted on," said Minnis, who over the years has gained a reputation as a social issues conservative.
But Minnis and other Oregon Republicans are coming under fire from gay rights advocates who point to a recent public opinion poll showing support for the idea of civil unions.
"She doesn't have to vote for a civil unions bill; she only has to allow it to be decided by the people's representatives in the House," said Rebekah Kassell of Basic Rights Oregon, the state's leading gay rights organization.
The group organized a rally on the front steps of the Capitol that drew around 800 gays and lesbians from around the state Wednesday evening to demand a House vote on a civil unions bill. Currently, Vermont and Connecticut are the only states that allow civil unions.
Minnis is also under intense pressure from Senate Democrats and Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who say the House leader needs to stop standing in the way of a vote on a Senate-passed bill opening up to same-sex couples hundreds of benefits only available to married couples.
Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown said Wednesday that Minnis is off base when she said the issue was already decided when voters last November approved Measure 36, a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
"Nothing in the measure prohibits civil unions or any kind of legal recognition of domestic partnerships between same-sex couples," the Portland Democrat said.
Brown and others point to a recent statewide poll that indicated there is more support than opposition among Oregon voters for civil unions.
The survey, conducted by Portland pollster Mike Riley, found that 49 percent of voters support civil unions compared with 30 percent opposed and 21 percent undecided. The poll's margin of error was 4.5 percent.
"Clearly, the voters make a distinction" between granting full marriage rights to same-sex couples and allowing them to enter into civil unions, Brown said.
The gay marriage debate intensified in Oregon in early 2004, when Multnomah County began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Nearly 3,000 marriage licenses were issued to gay and lesbian couples before a judge ordered the county to stop. In April of this year, the Oregon Supreme Court threw out the Multnomah County marriage licenses, saying it was not within the county's rights to issue them.
For weeks, Minnis and other lawmakers have been greeted as they arrive each morning for work by a group of rights activists holding signs at the entrance to the state Capitol's parking garage.
Minnis said the protesters haven't been a problem.
"Actually, they are very friendly, and I've tried to be respectful back," she said.
However, Minnis said the Senate's civil unions bill is worded so broadly and amends so many existing statutes that the civil unions would be "marriage by another name."
"When you amend every marriage statute we have on the books, that is a clear violation" of the gay marriage ban adopted by voters last fall, she said.
Minnis also said the Senate has refused to take up some House-passed bills this year, including one to create a separate criminal charge for hurting or killing a fetus. Opponents of the bill have called it a step toward outlawing abortion by establishing a fetus as a person.
"There seems to be a double standard," Minnis said. "The Senate can take a House bill and kill it, and nobody bats an eye."