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Group that led charge against gay marriage changes tack

Oregon Family Council files measure to protect people who decline services for same-sex ceremonies for religious reasons.


Oregon Family Council, the conservative Christian group that helped lead the 2004 campaign to bar same-sex marriage in Oregon, is turning its attention in a new direction.

The East Portland group filed a state ballot initiative Thursday, Nov. 21, that would guarantee the right of people and businesses to refrain from participating in or supporting ceremonies for same-sex civil unions, domestic partnerships or marriages, if those violate their religious beliefs.

The group calls the measure the Protect Religious Freedom Initiative.

The measure is a response to public penalties and lawsuits brought against bakers, florists and photographers in Oregon, Washington, Colorado and New Mexico who refused to play roles in same-sex ceremonies for civil unions, domestic partnerships or marriages, says Teresa Harke communications director for Oregon Family Council.

People who are opposed to same-sex unions are afraid to speak their mind, even when it’s based on religious convictions, Harke says. “They’ve almost been beaten down to the point where they’re afraid to speak out,” she says.

The Oregon Family Council previously established a political committee called Protect Marriage Oregon. That’s designed to be a vehicle to oppose a likely November 2014 ballot measure that would enshrine the right to same-sex marriage in the Oregon Constitution. That campaign, if successful, would reverse the 2004 constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage that Oregon Family Council championed.

However, the Protect Marriage Oregon committee is still somewhat of a placeholder group, and it’s unclear what groups will support it, and to what extent, Harke says.

“As the Oregon Family Council, our focus is going to be the Protect Religious Freedom Initiative,” she says. “That’s kind of our primary concern now.”

Some might view the shift in Oregon Family Council as further evidence that the political pendulum on gay rights has swung in Oregon.

The most recent polls show 54 percent of Oregon voters now support same-sex marriage. And religious conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage note their side was vastly outspent in the 2012 campaign in Washington, when voters approved same-sex marriage.

“They know what they’re up against, and we know what we’re up against,” Harke says.

Recent judicial decisions, including the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, have “taken the wind out of the sails of those who believe marriage is between one man and one woman,” says Tim Nashif, who led the successful 2004 campaign against gay marriage as political director of Oregon Family Council.

Nashif, who is no longer on the group's staff but still serves on its board, says the political climate is different now.

If you poll religious conservatives now, gay marriage doesn’t appear on their top list of concerns, Nashif says.

“Whatever happens in 2014, our belief in traditional marriage was extended another decade,” he says. “The next big battle is going to be religious liberties in Oregon.”