Lying in Wait: Linn County’s “No Rights to Homosexuals Code” to be removed after 20 years

Michaela Martin felt shock when she stumbled across a Linn County Code entitled “No Rights To Homosexuals” on the county’s website in November, 2016.

Linn County Code Chapter 270 “No Rights to Homosexuals” is scheduled for removal in two meetings. The first is Tuesday, May 16 at 9:30 a.m. and the second on Tuesday, May 30 at 9:30 a.m. in Room 200 at the Linn County Courthouse in Albany, Oregon

“When I first read it I didn’t know that it was unenforceable. I was terrified,” said Martin.

Adopted in June of 1993, Linn County Code Chapter 270 “No Rights to Homosexuals” denies minority or protected status to individuals identifying as LGBTQ+ and prohibits the spending of county funds in ways that express approval of homosexuality.

Martin is a dual-enrolled LBCC student currently studying communications at Oregon State University. Formerly an active member of the Student Leadership Council, LB’s student government, Martin takes a keen interest in politics and intends to pursue a career in social justice work. This interest in local processes motivated her to peruse Linn County’s code during the November general election, leading her straight to the offending Chapter 270.

Appalled that her home county retained an anti-gay law in its books, Martin immediately called the Linn County Commissioners and discovered that the code had been unenforceable for nearly 20 years.

A leftover political time capsule from the early 90s, Chapter 270’s language makes clear that it was left in county code to lie in wait for a time, if any, when it would become relevant.

At the time of Chapter 270’s passing, a political battle for LGBTQ+ rights smoldered in Oregon. Some fought to establish minority rights and end discrimination while others attempted to deny those rights. A series of bills were introduced at the state level, beginning with Ballot Measure 8 in 1988, which repealed Governor Neil Goldschmidt’s executive order ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation among state employees.

The Oregon Citizen’s Alliance (OCA), a Christian political organization, pushed the conservative victory further with the introduction of 1992’s Ballot Measure 9, “Government Cannot Facilitate, Must Discourage Homosexuality, Other ‘Behaviors.’” This measure sought to deny LGBTQ+ individuals minority rights and protections, and included specific educational policy requiring the state explicitly treat homosexuality as “unnatural and perverse” in public schools. Measure 9 was voted down by a 12.9 percent margin.

However, the OCA pushed their platform at the local level all across the state with watered-down versions of Measure 9, introducing more than 29 initiatives on county and state ballots between 1992 and 1994, including Linn County.

In a victory for minority rights activists House Bill 3500 passed on August 2, 1993, rendering Linn County Chapter 270 and other initiatives like it null. Prohibiting local measures that “single out citizens or groups of citizens on account of sexual orientation,” HB3500 was upheld by the Oregon Court of Appeals in 1995 as “valid and constitutional.”

However, rather than remove the unenforceable code, the Linn County Board of Commissioners issued Resolution 93-484 on August 11,1993 stating they would not enforce Chapter 270 “until such time as HB3500A may be decreed to be invalid or until further action by the board that is consistent with relevant law.”

“If anything were to happen in higher court saying the state can’t supersede the will of the county or anything that might be unrelated to this passes in a higher court, that would make it so this [270] is enforceable,” said Martin.

Although the code remains unenforceable, Martin believes it serves as a beacon for homophobia in Linn County.

“Obviously it conflicts with state and federal law,” said Ralph Wyatt, Linn County’s administrative officer. “From the county’s point of view, from an organizational point of view, it just sat there.”

After being alerted by Martin, the board of commissioners removed the code from the county website in December and began the removal process for Chapter 270 and other irrelevant codes.

“Overall, it’s really a cleanup of our codes which needs to be done periodically,” said Wyatt.

Since she found the code in November, Martin repeatedly contacted the Linn County Commissioners and County Attorney’s office, asking them to remove the code from county law and attempting to gain information about the legal removal process.

“Every time I called I got a different answer. They sent me back and forth from the county attorney’s office to the county commissioner’s office but nobody could give me a straight answer as to how the removal process worked,” said Martin. “They didn’t seem the least bit interested in removing this bit of archaic code.”

A receptionist questioned Martin about the validity of her concern due to the code’s unenforceable nature. 

“it didn’t make the feeling go away; it didn’t make me feel any better,” said Martin. “Unenforceable or not, it’s really a symbol of homophobia in Linn County.”

After more than five months of waiting for answers, Martin received the news the code will be removed this May.

“Quite frankly I think there’s a variety of motives for getting rid of it including that it doesn’t reflect the county’s position on the subject,” said Wyatt.

The code is scheduled for its first removal reading on Tuesday, May 16, at the County Commissioner’s meeting at 9:30 a.m. After a second and final reading, the code will be removed on Tuesday, May 30.

“I want it gone,” said Martin. “This is something that will affect people that I love and it’s wrong. The title alone, ‘No Rights to Homosexuals’ is incredibly detrimental. The message that conveys is harmful.”

Story and photos by Emily Goodykoontz

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