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Marriage measure hits home in Oregon.

Byline: Jeff Wright The Register-Guard

Oregon or bust.

That could be the unofficial campaign slogan for national gay rights groups that see Oregon as their best chance - their only chance, really - of defeating a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

Oregon is one of 12 states where voters will weigh in on "defense of marriage" amendments this fall - but it's the only state where the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has kicked in $500,000 to help defeat the proposal. No other state has received more than $100,000 from the Washington, D.C.-based organization.

"We have limited resources that we need to deploy as effectively as possible," said task force Executive Director Matt Foreman. "In Oregon, as compared to other states, a majority of voters do not favor amending the constitution to ban gay marriage. In fact, polls show a statistical dead heat."

The national attention and dollars appear to have energized supporters as well as opponents of Ballot Measure 36 in what's likely to be a fierce and emotional debate.

Former state Rep. Marie Bell of Springfield, for example, said she decided to take a lead in the local vote-yes campaign out of concern that out-of-state influences could tilt the balance.

"I've always accepted that Oregon is more liberal than other states - we've set a precedent with assisted suicide, pornography, various things," she said. "If I was on that side, I'd consider Oregon a prime target, too. That's why I stepped forward - we need to stand up to this issue because we just can't let this happen."

Much like the presidential race, the Measure 36 contest may hinge on a small minority of undecided voters.

Opponents say they've already raised more than $1 million toward their goal of between $2.5 million and $3 million. The money raised so far includes the task force's contribution, plus another $40,000 from the Human Rights Coalition, another national gay rights group that's been asked to contribute even more.

But supporters say they hope to raise at least $2 million, and point to Missouri to prove their point that money isn't everything. Voters in that state last month approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages by 70 percent, even though amendment opponents outspent supporters 40-to-1.

Supporters in Oregon may also feel emboldened after collecting 204,160 valid signatures, more than double the number needed, to refer Measure 36 to the Nov. 2 general election ballot. The record number of signatures was gathered in only six weeks.

"We don't have access to large caches of funds from outside the state, but what we do have is a broad, grass-roots base," said Georgene Rice of Portland, spokeswoman for the Defense of Marriage Coalition.

That base includes hundreds of churches whose members signed petitions to refer the measure and are expected to play an important role in the fall campaign. Many of the campaign's rallies - including one last week at Calvary Fellowship in south Eugene - are being held at churches.

Someone you know

Supporters and opponents appear to agree on at least one point: The vote is likely to be close.

A poll commissioned by the No on Constitutional Amendment 36 Committee in late July found 49 percent of Oregonians in favor of the measure and 46 percent opposed, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. The poll also found only about 5 percent of likely-to-vote residents to be undecided, said committee spokeswoman Rebekah Kassell.

So why is Oregon so evenly divided on the issue? Many observers point to the state's reputation for fair-mindedness and a live-and-let-live philosophy, partly reflected in the defeat of three anti-gay rights ballot measures between 1992 and 2000.

"In those (past) campaigns, people had conversations with people who were gay, or who had family members or co-workers who were gay," said Roey Thorpe, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, which formed in 1988 and helped fight the three subsequent ballot measures.

"Oregonians are more likely to know someone who is gay or lesbian, compared to other states, and we know that people are more likely to support gay rights when they know people who are gay," Thorpe said.

The fact that groups like Basic Rights Oregon already exist is also a boon to amendment opponents, said Foreman, the national task force director. "There's been a lot of face-to-face education around our issues in Oregon, a lot of coalition building," he said. "That kind of work has really not been done in other states."

Politically and symbolically, victory in Oregon is important to gay rights advocates even if similar amendments pass in other states. "Wins always show other people that it can be done," said Foreman, whose group is providing campaign staff support as well as money to the Oregon effort.

Definition or discrimination?

While opponents are keen to frame Ballot Measure 36 as unequal treatment of Oregonians - pointing to the potential loss of partner health benefits and inheritance rights, for example - supporters say the measure is all about defining the institution of marriage.

"We already have a lot of distinctions in Oregon law about marriage - you can only marry one person, you have to be a certain age - and people are going to see this as another distinction," said Rice of the Defense of Marriage Coalition. "I think most Oregonians are going to see this and the previous (anti-gay rights) measures as very different things."

As their No. 1 talking point, supporters are zeroing in on social science research that they say shows children do best when reared in families with a married mother and father.

"The institution of marriage is designed to protect children, not to give benefits to adults," Bell said. "We need to recognize that this is the optimum situation for children."

Both sides paint themselves as being dragged into the debate by other forces. Supporters bemoan the "activist" judges and "elitist" elected officials who they say have turned the notion of marriage upside down. They point specifically to the Multnomah County commissioners who earlier this year met in secret, then approved the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Opponents, meanwhile, say they are merely responding to the latest ballot-box attempt to discriminate against gays and lesbians - this time by attempting to enshrine such language in the constitution.

Opponents also say they're the ones who went to the national gay rights groups seeking money - and aren't about to apologize for it.

"We're facing a constitutional amendment we wish we didn't have to fight," said Kassell of the No on 36 committee. "It's very important for all Oregonians to defeat this measure, and we'll ask for support from wherever we can."

STATE BY STATE SCORECARD

States voting on constitutional amendments: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah

Other states that may refer constitutional amendments: Delaware, Pennsylvania

States that already have constitutional amendments: Alaska, Hawaii, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada

States with no "Defense of Marriage" law on the books: Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Wisconsin

Note: Louisiana voters decide amendment on Sept. 18; all other states vote Nov. 2

- National Conference of State Legislatures, Stateline.org

TALKING POINTS: PRO

Measure is about defining marriage, not discrimination

Research shows children do best with married mom, dad

Same-sex marriage defies laws of nature

Most other states already have "defense of marriage" laws

Send message to "activist" judges, "elitist" elected officials

- Defense of Marriage Coalition

TALKING POINTS: CON

Measure would enshrine discrimination in constitution

Measure would deny health care to many Oregon families

Measure would block partners' inheritance rights

Measure would block partners from making emergency medical decisions

People can disagree without changing constitution

- No on Constitutional Amendment 36 Committee
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Title Annotation:Ballot Measures; National money is funding a close state battle over the amendment proposal
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 6, 2004
Words:1296
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