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Senate panel advances bill banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Byline: David Steves The Register-Guard

SALEM - A Senate panel sent to the floor Monday night a bill extending legal protections from discrimination to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered individuals.

The Judiciary Committee's 3-1 party-line vote approving Senate Bill 2 followed more than five hours of testimony at its initial hearing. The bill was modeled on recommendations by Gov. Ted Kulongoski's Task Force on Equality in Oregon. Another bill recommended by the task force, legalizing civil unions for same-sex couples, is awaiting action in the House.

Senate Bill 2 advocates ranged from government and business officials from both major parties to gay Oregonians with personal stories of discrimination in hiring, housing and education because of their sexual orientation.

Opponents largely represented conservative Christian causes and cited concerns ranging from the potential for legitimizing what they see as an immoral lifestyle to the risk that churches will be forced to hire gays or else face anti-discrimination lawsuits.

Travis Prinslow of Salem told lawmakers that he was fired by a Canby hair salon after his supervisor there learned that he was gay.

"It's real. It happens," Prinslow said.

Beyond protecting people from discrimination in eating at a restaurant or keeping a job, the bill offered hope to several speakers that it would help erase homophobic attitudes in society.

Ree McSween, who appeared with her partner and their teenage daughter, said she grew up in the South during the 1960s.

Opponents to the civil rights laws there warned of chaos reining throughout the South should they pass.

"What really happened was that the law got in and the law forced them to change the attitudes that were inside them," she said.

Will Ross, who described himself as a bisexual teenager from Eugene, said he hoped the passage of SB 2 would bring about an end to the verbal abuse, anti-gay name calling and environment of fear that plagues gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people.

"This will be an amazing influence on our children, my generation, the next generation after that. They will not have to live with abuse," said Ross, a member of the Eugene-based teen group LEAD.

Opponents focused on their own concerns about protecting rights - the constitutional right of religious freedom.

By outlawing discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation, Stephen Williams of Bend said, Christians' religious freedom to speak out against homo- sexuality would be infringed.

"You are criminalizing the Christian world view ... that a certain lifestyle choice is immoral," he said.

Former Sen. Charles Starr, now the head of a group called Life, Liberty, and Property Inc., said passage of the bill would promote homosexuality through the schools, given the bill's call for "a program of public education" to eliminate discriminatory attitudes because of sexual orientation, as well as other classes already covered by Oregon's anti-discrimination law.

The bill includes an exemption for churches and sectarian religious institutions.

They would not be subject to the law in employment, housing or the use of facilities based on religious beliefs about sexual orientation.

This exemption would apply only in areas "connected with or related to the primary purposes" of the church or institution. It would not apply to a church or sectarian institution's nonreligious commercial or business activities.

But critics said the exemption is inadequate.

Ray Young, a pastor at East Hill Church in Gresham, said all of his church's employees held an important role in representing its religious beliefs - even those whose employment would not be exempt under the bill.

"I don't care whether you're stacking chairs or preaching from the pulpit, you are witnessing for Jesus Christ," said Young, who worked as an attorney before joining the staff of the Foursquare church.

The Senate, which passed a similar proposal in 2005, is expected to do the same when the bill comes up on the floor.

The bill's stumbling block in 2005 was not the Senate but the House, where then-Speaker Karen Minnis, R-Wood Village, declined to allow the bill to be heard in the Republican-controlled chamber.

But with Democrats now in control of both the House and Senate, supporters said they were confident that the bill would become law.

Committee Chairwoman Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said she thought the bill could have passed years or decades ago, considering that the first version was introduced in the Oregon Legislature in 1973.

"We've had a consensus if it could have gotten past the politics," said Burdick, who expected the Senate to send the bill to the House this week or next. "But better late than never."
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Title Annotation:Legislature; The Judiciary Committee sends the measure to the floor, where action is expected soon, after five hours of testimony
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 13, 2007
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