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Oregon Governor Signs Domestic Partner Bill

May 9, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Oregon’s new law on domestic partnerships. Today, Governor Ted Kulongoski signed legislation making Oregon the latest state on the West Coast — along with California and Washington — to provide some legal rights for gay and lesbian partners.

The West Coast now mirrors New England, where all of the states recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships or, in the case of Massachusetts, same-sex marriage.

Civil unions provide some of the legal benefits of marriage, but not all of the same rights. And those rights are limited to just the given state. NewsHour correspondent Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Broadcasting looks at how the debate played out there.

LEE HOCHBERG, NewsHour Correspondent: The bill the governor signed today legalizing domestic partnerships for Oregon’s 11,000 same-sex couples marks a profound shift for Oregon and for couples like Dolores Doyle and Kelly Burke.

KELLY BURKE, Oregon Resident: The representatives of my community and my state stood up for us and finally said that we were — you know, we were valid citizens of this state as much as anyone else.

LEE HOCHBERG: Oregon seemed an unlikely choice to pass domestic partnerships. Between 1988 and 2000, ballot measures in the state sought to strip gays of job protections. One tried to amend the state constitution to, quote, “stigmatize homosexuality as abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse.”

Only one of the measures passed statewide, and it was declared unconstitutional, but some counties later voted for similar, local ordinances.

WEDDING MINISTER: Those whom God has so joined together, let no one separate.

LEE HOCHBERG: But in 2004, same-sex marriages were allowed in the state’s largest county, which includes the city of Portland. The attorney general there said it was illegal to refuse gay and lesbian couples that right.

Burke and Doyle, who’d been together for 16 years, joined the highly public rush to get married. A major reason was to finally get Burke covered on Doyle’s health plan.

KELLY BURKE: It’s not real romantic. Yes, it was not romantic, I think, in any way. It was not about the fantasy people have about marriage or about a wedding. You know, for us, it was about the ability to take care of each other and knowing that our kids would be safe, that they’d have an extra layer of protection, that their family was going to be recognized.

Shifting the balance of power

LEE HOCHBERG: But that recognition was short-lived. There was a backlash. Voters passed a ballot measure to constitutionally prohibit gay marriage, and the State Supreme Court invalidated the licenses of all 3,000 same-sex couples who had wed.

So what changed this year to allow domestic partnerships to pass? First of all, the state government changed. For the first time since 1989, both houses of the legislature and the governor are Democrats. Two years ago, a Republican-controlled legislature rejected civil unions.

Republican State Representative Dennis Richardson was one of 26 in the 60-member legislature who voted against the measure again this time. He blamed the shift in power for the bill's victory.

DENNIS RICHARDSON (R), State Representative: There's been this substantial earthquake shift to the left in Oregon. Because the majority has shifted in the House, this bill was like a freight train that was going straight through.

LEE HOCHBERG: And he wasn't happy about it.

DENNIS RICHARDSON: The move that society has taken away from family, away from morality, away from virtue, and honor, and chastity to the shift of tolerance and cultural competency is a mistake and that it's going to have a negative effect for generations to come.

LEE HOCHBERG: Most observers also credit for the new law the impact of gay leadership in the legislature. Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown is bisexual.

KATE BROWN (D), State Senator: I know that we changed hearts and minds and votes by the testimony that we gave on the Senate floor. I do believe that us sharing our personal stories really helps people understand, helps people connect, and helps people become supportive of the issues that we feel so strongly about.

Allowing 'domestic parternships'

LEE HOCHBERG: New tactics also helped. Gay rights advocates say the backlash in Oregon against gay marriage taught them to respect voter sensitivity about words like "marriage." When a survey showed 41 percent of Oregonians might vote to repeal a civil union law versus only 23 percent for domestic partners, strategists stopped using the term "civil union."

BRAD AVAKIAN (D), State Senator: I think that some folks view the term "union" as being very closely related to the term "marriage." The term "union" is used in churches, you know, quite often. The term "partnership," "domestic partnership" is something that is very distinct from traditional marriage and the terminology that's used there.

LEE HOCHBERG: But it's the same thing as a union, right?

BRAD AVAKIAN: It's the same thing as a union.

LEE HOCHBERG: And supporters made it clear they were not talking about marriage.

KATE BROWN: Please be aware that both domestic partnerships -- that domestic partnerships are both fundamentally and legally different than the institute of marriage.

LEE HOCHBERG: In floor debate, supporters explained what domestic partnerships do: They allow gays and lesbians to visit a partner in the hospital; have joint health insurance; take family medical leave to care for a partner; inherit a partner's estate.

But they also emphasized the benefits of marriage that partnerships don't provide: certain tax benefits; retirement benefits; portability across state lines. They were presented as a basic civil right. Senator Ben Westlund.

BEN WESTLUND (R), State Senator: It is time to provide the simple but profound dignity to human beings who simply ask to be.

LEE HOCHBERG: Reframing the debate neutralized powerful organized opposition to gay rights. The Oregon Family Council, a Christian group, led the effort three years ago to ban same-sex marriage. This time, while it fought the domestic partner bill, its leaders say it has no plans to force a public referendum. Pastor Ray Young says that's because it isn't about marriage.

REV. RAY YOUNG, Pastor: We know the line in the sand is marriage. I mean, when they say, "We want to be married," that's a no-no. When they say, "We want a bundle of rights that allow us to go visit our mate in the hospital, we want to have inheritance rights, we want to help make medical decisions and raise children," you know, that's something on the other end that's kind of like, "Fine, go ahead." You know, we're not going to put our energy into fighting that because we've got more important battles to fight.

Nike's support eases some concerns

LEE HOCHBERG: Gay rights advocates also cultivated support from Oregon's largest company. Nike, the state's only Fortune 500 company, has publicly supported gay and lesbian athletes, like Cheryl Swoopes at this Coming Out Day event earlier this year.

Nike lobbied companies to sign this letter in support of benefits for same-sex couples. Director of global issues Vada Manager says the company has offered such benefits to its employees for years, and 136 same-sex couples take advantage of them in the U.S. He says it's simply good business.

VADA MANAGER, Nike Corp.: If you've got a bright, really talented employee in another country thinking about coming to Oregon and coming to the state, and looking at not only just their work they have to perform, but also what social environment they'll be in, that can be the slight measurement between you attracting the best and brightest at your company and not getting that individual and having them go to your competitor.

LEE HOCHBERG: David Sarasohn, who's been covering the issue for the Oregonian newspaper, says Nike's support helped ease some concerns statewide.

DAVID SARASOHN, Columnist, Oregonian Newspaper: It makes the whole idea seem more mainstream, makes the whole idea seem more acceptable. Right now, we're in a position where the idea of legal protections for gay relationships is no longer politically toxic. It's no longer unthinkable. The word "marriage" is still a very fraught word, but the idea that you can protect the people in a gay relationship and the children in a gay relationship is becoming acceptable.

LEE HOCHBERG: Sarasohn doesn't think Oregonians are any more ready for same-sex marriages than they were in 2004. And State Senator Brown agrees.

KATE BROWN: Is it the final step? No, but I think the final step, true marriage equality, will take changing a lot of hearts and a lot of minds, and it will take some time.

LEE HOCHBERG: So, for right now, civil unions is as far as...

KATE BROWN: This is the best we can do right now.

LEE HOCHBERG: Burke and Doyle are grateful for the change. Five states now are either debating civil unions or domestic partnerships in their legislatures or preparing ballot measures.