Albion Monitor /Commentary

Despite Religious Heat, Oregon Chooses Right To Die

by Russell Sadler

They swaggered in with money from the National Catholic Conference, Mormons, Baptists and fundamentalists
(AR) ASHLAND -- They descended on Oregon two months ago like the Borg descending on Captain Jean-Luc Picard, the crew of the Starship Enterprise and the United Federation of Planets. "You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile. Freedom is irrelevant. You are an obsolete species. You will be assimilated."

The tidal wave of political consultants and national organizations -- the legions of the national thought police -- washed onto Oregon beaches to browbeat Oregon voters into repealing the physician-assisted suicide law they approved at the polls in 1994.

They swaggered in with money from the National Catholic Conference, Mormons, several sorts of Baptists and various Protestant fundamentalists. They hired Chuck Cavalier, the California wunderkind who boasted about defeating physician-assisted suicide measures in California and Australia. Cynically, they insisted $2.5 million beats $650,000. They passed out lawn signs and bumper stickers in churches and lectured from the pulpit.

Insiders at the state's largest daily newspaper say personally ambitious top management decided they could win a Pulitzer Prize by successfully turning Oregonians away from their immoral, ideologically errant ways and turning this independent, maverick state toward national political orthodoxy.

They all just got handed their heads.

Ballot Measure 51 failed in 33 of Oregon's 36 counties. Those opposed to repeal won 60 percent of the votes. Supporters of repeal are still not quite sure why.

Opponents of physician-assisted suicide are still unwilling to take "no" for an answer
The made-in-California political rhetoric fell on deaf ears because it made no effort to understand the political traditions of the state it sought to influence. Oregonians are religious skeptics. While 98 percent of Oregonians say they believe in a Supreme Being in polls over the last 50 years, only about one-third admit going to church regularly. The other two-thirds remain unchurched. These numbers stayed fairly stable event though the population grew.

Oregon's religious skepticism goes back to the state's founding. There were only 900 European-Americans in the Oregon Country in 1842 when the settlers first began debating some form of territorial government. They were roughly divided in thirds. One-third were followers of Jason Lee, a Methodist missionary who was also a secular leader in the Willamette Valley. Father Francis Blanchet, a Roman Catholic priest, was leader of French-Canadian trappers who retired from the Hudsons' Bay Company post at Fort Vancouver. The remaining third were the American mountain men who trapped beaver in the 1820s and '30s. They could be charitably described as militantly disaffiliated.

The French-Canadians and American trappers feared Lee would spread Methodist missions around the Oregon Country under the guise of secular administrative outposts. They refused to form any secular government that would allow Lee access to tax revenue. The original draft of Oregon's territorial constitution called for voluntary taxation.

In 1843, Jesse Applegate's wagon train doubled the European-American population in the Oregon Country overnight. Applegate's followers wanted a territorial government to legitimize their property claims. They people abandoned the idea of voluntary taxation when it became clear no one would step up to be the first to contribute. Their compromise became Article I, Section 5 of Oregon's constitution at statehood in 1959.

"Section 5. No money to be appropriated for religion. No money shall be drawn from the public treasury for the benefit of any religious or theological institution, nor shall any money be appropriated for the payment of and religious services in either house of the Legislative Assembly." Oregon's founders were not even going to allow Jason Lee a paid chaplain in the Legislature. Oregon's original colleges were founded by churches. Oregon's secular state universities were founded because founders like Matthew Deady wanted to separate religion and higher education.

Oregon's religious skepticism erupted into occasional episodes of religious bigotry. In 1922 the largely-Protestant Ku Klux Klan drafted an initiative petition requiring all Oregon children to attend public school until the age of 18. The Oregon Compulsory School initiative was a transparent attempt to abolish Roman Catholic parochial schools by depriving them of their students.

The 1922 initiative was approved by voters 115,506 to 103,685 with the support of Gov. Walter Pierce, a conservative Democrat. The U.S. Supreme Court ended this dark chapter in Story in 1925 by declaring the Oregon Compulsory School initiative unconstitutional in the case of Pierce vs. Society of Sisters.

Complaints of renewed anti-Catholic bigotry during the Measure 51 campaign are unconvincing. Many of the Roman Catholic's allies are members of the same Protestants sects that tried to shut down their parochial schools in 1922. Wrapping political arguments in cassock and surplice will not prevent criticism when the clergy and their parishioners enter the secular political pit.

Oregon's physician-assisted suicide initiative is not the Compulsory School initiative of 1922. The Roman Catholic church and its Protestant allies are not forced to submit to physician-assisted suicide. No one may be compelled to use the procedure. Various religious groups do not approve of anyone else committing physician-assisted suicide just as Oregon's misguided Klansman did not want any Oregon child going to Catholic parochial schools in 1922. Oregon's minority religious organizations tried to deprive Oregon voters of a choice Oregonians approved in 1994 and they are reaping the whirlwind.

There is evidence opponents of physician-assisted suicide are still unwilling to take "no" for an answer or respect the decision of Oregon voters. A petulant, graceless concession editorial in The Oregonian reads more like a declaration of continuing cultural war on Oregon's maverick, independent political tradition. National organizations financed by the Roman Catholic church like Right to Life threaten to file another frivolous lawsuit because Oregonians did not bend to their will and repeal the physician-assisted suicide law.

It is unlikely Oregonians will be "Borged." They do not want their independent, maverick political tradition assimilated into fashionable, national political orthodoxy. Resistance, far from futile, proved effective. Those who ignore Oregon's political traditions will find they are irrelevant. Oregonians are not ready to be assimilated.

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Albion Monitor November 15, 1997 (

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