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JIC Post:By BRAD CAIN The Associated Press SALEM, Ore. (AP) — House Republican leaders, seeking to ensure the demise of a Senate-passed civil unions bill for same-sex couples, gutted the measure Thursday and replaced it with a "reciprocal benefits" alternative that's been criticized by gay rights advocates.The move wasn't a surprise, given that House Speaker Karen Minnis said on Wednesday that she had no intention of allowing a House vote on the Senate bill to open up to same-sex couples hundreds of benefits only available to married couples.Minnis contends the Senate's bill ignores the wishes of Oregon voters who approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in last November's election.Still, gay rights activists and legislative Democrats cried foul over the use of a last-minute, "gut-and-stuff" maneuver in the House State and Federal Affairs Committee to replace the civil union provisions with reciprocal benefits language.They said the move was aimed at heading off any possibility of having a civil unions bill brought up for a vote in the full House."It thwarts the process of representative democracy in that all 90 legislators will not be allowed to consider the most significant civil rights legislation that has come to this building in 20 years," said Sen. Ben Westlund, R-Bend, one of the main supporters of the Senate bill.But Chuck Deister, a spokesman for Minnis, said the House speaker has been consistent on the same-sex couples issue since the 2005 Legislature opened in January."The speaker has said all along that if the House addresses this issue, it would be in the form of reciprocal benefits," Deister said.As an alternative to civil unions, Minnis has advocated a reciprocal benefits bill to grant a set of about 20 benefits to any two people over age 18, including relatives and same-sex couples. The rights mostly center around property issues and emergency or end-of-life situations.Democrats and gay rights advocates oppose the bill, saying it does nothing to protect gay and lesbian families, and it does not provide gay couples similar benefits and responsibilities of marriage.Besides removing the civil unions language from the Senate bill, the House committee also deleted provisions in the bill to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment, housing and public accommodations."This maneuver by the House speaker is a cruel ploy designed to deny same-sex couples and their families real legal protections and security under the law," said Rebekah Kassel of Basic Rights Oregon, the state's leading gay rights group.However, a key critic of the Senate's civil unions bill praised Minnis, saying the Wood Village Republican is upholding the spirit of Oregon's Measure 36, the measure adopted by voters last fall defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman."The Senate bill amends and tinkers with marriage law, and we don't believe that that's what the voters had in mind," said Tim Nashif of the Oregon Family Council.Backers of civil unions said that despite the setback, they were not giving up on the idea of providing equality and legal protections for Oregon's gay and lesbian couples."Civil unions is going to happen. It's just a question of whether the Legislature has the courage to enact them or if the courts will have to do it," said Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown, D-Portland.
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