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Eugene Weekly : Unda the Rotunda : 3.22.07

Paranoia Abounds

Lions and tigers and bears … oh, my!

BY SEN. VICKI WALKER

It's been an interesting two weeks at the Capitol. We listened to five hours of testimony on March 12 regarding SB 2 — the bill banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations, etc. For many, the bill was about honoring and respecting diversity in our everyday lives so all Oregonians can enjoy legal protection from discrimination. For others, it was the ultimate infringement upon their religious beliefs. At one point I wondered aloud whether the conservative religious groups believed they owned God.

The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights under the U.S. Constitution states in part that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The 14th Amendment clarifies that states may not exempt the tenets of the U.S. Constitution. And while the Supreme Court has made several rulings on how the religious clause should be applied, their efforts to actually define what a religion is for First Amendment purposes is a work in progress.

For purposes of SB 2, however, the language of the bill uses the term bona fide church or sectarian religious institution, which is based on state and federal statutes that define those terms for tax purposes, labor law, tort law and other court rulings. In addition, Article I of the Oregon Constitution bars use of taxpayer dollars for religious institutions, so Oregon courts have long been called upon to define what exactly that definition entails. If a church or sectarian religious institution believes homosexuality is a violation of its moral code, SB 2 doesn't change the right to hold those beliefs. What SB 2 does do, however, is tell that organization that if it has a commercial enterprise not directly related to its religious purpose — such as an apartment complex, assisted living facility, a restaurant — it may not discriminate against others who use the facilities but do not share the beliefs.

The Oregon Legislature has been trying to pass a nondiscrimination law like SB 2 since 1973. We had testimony from over a hundred individuals, but two in particular — a constitutional lawyer and a lesbian — had both testified in 1973. I'm dismayed they've had to fight 34 years to bring equality to all Oregonians. I was so discouraged by the opposition's testimony that passage of SB 2 would corrupt the moral values of our citizens and subject us to all sorts of horrible consequences that I ordered a copy of Lions and Tigers and Bears – Oh My, a parable written by Art Jackson that challenges us to look at our biases and stereotypes as it relates to diversity and inclusion. I hope by reading it I can gain a better understanding of the paranoia gripping the opposition.

 

On another note, for our comic relief we had the antics of Senate Minority leader Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day). Unhappy that he made himself and his caucus irrelevant by refusing to participate in negotiations over a state rainy day fund, Ferrioli threw a tantrum by staging a walkout on March 8, denying the Senate a quorom to conduct business. Nineteen senators were locked on the Senate floor for two hours while we awaited knowledge of the whereabouts of the missing Republicans. At least two were excused to attend an Oregon State Beavers baseball game to present SCR 3, a resolution the Legislature passed to celebrate the team's national championship last year. Neither senator was aware of the leader's shenanigans.

Timing of the rainy day fund vote was crucial. Senate Democrats held Republicans' feet to the fire by launching our own measures to send the matter to the May ballot. Senate President Peter Courtney had no choice but to find the absent members, or the Senate bills would miss the deadline to make the ballot. After the governor agreed to send state troopers to the ballgame to locate the two we knew about, terse calls were placed to Ferrioli, who found his way back to the chamber so we could finish our business. The Senate then made history by passing the rainy day fund measures on March 15, putting approximately $290 million of the corporate kicker into the fund. Ferrioli apologized to the members, calling his actions a "teachable moment." I have a strange feeling we may see more such moments in the weeks to come.

Until then, I'll see you on the front lines.

Vicki Walker of Eugene is a state senator representing District 7.