Tim Hanlon
When the 2005 state legislative session begins in January, Deschutes County-based REPUBLICAN Senator Ben Westlund plans to introduce a bill that will establish civil unions for same-sex couples in Oregon. Sounds good, right? Since the passage of Measure 36 dashed hopes for fully recognized marriages between same-sex couples, isn't this precisely what gay and lesbian activists have been hoping for? Sure, most observers had expected such a proposal to come from state Democrats, but maybe this is an opportunity to build bridges, and amend the rifts between liberals and conservatives; a chance to move forward after the disappointment of Measure 36. Or maybe not.

In what should be not so surprising to activists and civil rights supporters, the Republican politician is working closely to fashion the bill with none other than Defense of Marriage Coalition director Tim Nashif. Not only is Nashif the veteran chairman of the Multnomah County Republican Party, but he was one of the primary sponsors of Measure 36. Apparently, Westlund is soliciting Nashif's input to determine what level of protections will--and will not--be included in the bill.

The choice to champion civil unions--even in a limited form--is politically odd for Westlund. After serving as a state representative for six years, he was elected to the senate last year by a district that can generously be called comfortably Republican. In the latest election, he had no Democratic challengers to speak of, and the only real danger to his incumbency would presumably come from someone even further to the right. And though he supported Measure 36, he's still considered a moderate by Republican standards--he has a voting record skewed against labor and the environment, yet he vocalizes support for higher taxes to fund public programs like education.

Even more peculiar and troubling is Nashif's involvement, and presumably, Defense of Marriage Coalition. In an interview with the Mercury, Nashif said that Westlund's office is looking at civil union laws from other states across the country--all, except for Vermont, which has the most comprehensive legislation of any state. Not coincidentally, Vermont, with its across-the-board granting of marriage benefits to same-sex couples, is the model often cited by activists who are eyeing civil unions as a step forward toward eventual marriage equality.

But Nashif says a Vermont-style plan is "not necessary" in Oregon. He adds that it specifically singles out gays and lesbians for the benefits, which he called "discriminatory."

More than likely, Nashif said, Westlund's plan will more closely resemble the law in Hawaii, which has reciprocal benefits that are nonspecific to sexual orientation. Under that type of plan, any household or partnership that is ineligible for marriage can apply for a certain number of limited benefits and recognition associated with marriage.

Yes, Nashif agreed, there may be objections from some of the more hard-line conservative members of the lawmaking body. But, he claimed, without a hint of irony, "I'm not afraid to disagree with the right-wing guys." Not surprisingly, Nashif expects that the senator's plan will receive more opposition from Democrats, and gay and lesbian activists, than from conservative legislators.

"The bigger issue will be whether the Democrats think it goes far enough," he said. Nashif went on to explain that he and his organization are still "nervous about the Basic Rights agenda," including the group's statements that marriage equality remains their ultimate goal.

But as of mid-December, just weeks before the legislative session begins, there was no indication that activists--or Democrats--were gearing up for a fight. In fact, it seems as if they are allowing Westlund and Nashif to fashion the tenor of the argument over civil unions and, perhaps ultimately, the legislation.

Basic Rights Oregon Director Roey Thorpe said she has spoken with the Republican senator about his plans and knew that he had been in discussions with Nashif. "I know that Senator Westlund is building bridges," she said diplomatically.

However, Thorpe said BRO is also working with legislative allies--most notably Senate Democratic leader Kate Brown--on a possible bill that would presumably be more comprehensive than Westlund's plan.

So why did activists let the GOP move first? Thorpe said BRO decided to not make any bold steps until the Oregon Supreme Court issues its ruling next year on whether the state has a constitutional obligation to provide marriage-like benefits for same-sex couples.

"We're waiting to see what the Supreme Court decides before we go forward on any legislation or make a decision on compromises," Thorpe said. "We don't want to lead the legislature down one path if the Court decides it needs to go down another path."

But the Supreme Court is not expected to hand out any decision within the next three months--which will be after the deadline for introducing legislation for the 2005 legislative session. That timeframe leaves activists and Senate Democrats with a pressing decision: Work with the Republicans on a bill that will require a great deal of compromise, or introduce a separate bill with a wider scope of protections?

Nevertheless, the political reality is that any gay and lesbian rights bills may have a difficult time passing either house of the state legislature. In recent years, two anti-discrimination bills have been shot down and already some conservative lawmakers are calling for a protest of Westlund's moderate plan. Neither Westlund or Kate Brown were available for comment on this story by press time.