Remember Arizona’s polarizing “religious freedom” law that allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBQT people on the grounds that their religious freedoms needed protection? Thankfully, Jan Brewer vetoed the measure after substantial pressure from groups both inside and outside Arizona, but that battle isn’t over. Now Oregon is thinking of taking up a very similar law, with a twist: instead of debating the matter on the floor of the legislature, the state plans to take it to the polling booth (or, more accurately, since Oregon is a vote-by-mail state, the mailbox).
This is an ominous development and it’s one that people should pay close attention to, because this isn’t the first time civil rights have come up for the vote, and if it goes like it has before, the results could be devastating for LGBQT people in Oregon as well as elsewhere. Under the terms of the bill, which still needs to collect an adequate number of signatures before it can go on the ballot, business owners would be allowed to refuse services to people planning same-sex marriages.
Wedding planners, photographers, bakers, florists, wedding venues and other trades would have a “religious freedom” protection under the law, as would, of course, wedding officiants. Supporters argue the bill is necessary to ensure that people aren’t compelled to participate in a ceremony they don’t approve of, ignoring the fact that most gay couples presumably don’t want to work with people who are morally or religiously opposed to their sexual identity. They also claim that unlike in Arizona, this bill has much narrower definitions and terms, making it less likely to be abused.
Opponents are not convinced. One might argue that it creates a right to protection where no such right is needed, because there are relatively few cases where gay couples would compel people to work with them — and it does start to establish a dangerous precedent where people could refuse services to people on the basis of gender and sexual identity. For example, a hotel could refuse a room to a gay couple on the grounds it’s connected with a wedding.
Putting the measure to the vote is also troubling. When California tried putting civil rights to the vote in 2008, the result was horrifying, and Oregon could be in for a repeat if the gay community cannot organize to rally against the bill. Meanwhile, having an issues measure on the ballot could spur conservative participation in the election coming up, which could make a slam-dunk for the bill and also have a ripple effect on the rest of the ballot.
Notably, Mike Marshall points out at the Huffington Post, Oregon has faced 35 ballot measures targeting the LGBQT community. He sees this as a sign that the state is used as a proving ground to test anti-gay legislation and refine electoral tactics in order to take similar bills to other states. It’s a perfect example of the potential abuses of the initiative and referendum system used in Oregon and many other states; on the surface, a system that allows people to directly submit and vote on measures seems like it would have merits, allowing the populace to be heard when their representatives stop working for them. In actuality, however, the system is ripe for abuse: should anyone be voting on the civil rights of a marginalized social group?
Photo credit: Teresa Alexander-Arab.