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Ashburn talks gay rights on Senate floor

May 27, 2010 | 11:46 am

Two months after announcing he was gay, state Sen. Roy Ashburn of Bakersfield discussed his sexuality on the Senate floor and cast votes on two separate gay-rights bills.

Ashburn was the only Republican senator to vote in support of allowing openly gay people to serve in the military, but he also voted against a bill that could remove a political obstacle to proposals to legalize same-sex marriage.

Ashburn then took the unusual step of publicly explaining his votes on the Senate floor.

"I would not have been speaking on a measure dealing with sexual orientation ever prior to the events that have transpired in my life over the last three months,’’ Ashburn told his colleagues. "However, I am no longer willing or able to remain silent on issues that affect sexual orientation and the rights of individuals. And so I am doing something that is quite different and foreign to me, and it’s highly emotional.’’

Ashburn, who has regularly voted against gay rights bills in the past, announced he is a homosexual in March after he was arrested for drunk driving after he allegedly left a gay nightclub.

He has said his past votes reflect his constituents’ votes, but said Thursday "The public supports allowing openly gay people to serve in the military.’’

The resolution passed the state Senate on a vote of 24-7. Ashburn said being gay did not affect one’s ability to serve in the military. "The current policy of 'don’t ask, don’t tell’ is clearly out of date and discriminatory,’’ he said.

But Ashburn was among several Republicans who opposed SB 906, which was approved by the state Senate and would clarify that clergy members would not be required to perform a civil marriage that was contrary to his or her faith. During the campaign on Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, supporters said they were concerned that legalizing such unions would potentially force clergy members to solemnize marriages that their religions didn’t recognize.

"I take these concerns very seriously,’’ said Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who authored the bill. "This is religious freedom put into statute.’’

Ashburn said he supported the portion of the legislation that made it clear clergy members would face no sanctions, including the loss of tax-exempt status for their churches, if they refused to perform gay marriages. But he said it was "troublesome’’ that the bill also described marriages as "civil’’ unions. Proposition 8, approved by voters, gave a definition of marriage, and Ashburn worried the new definition in the bill could muddy the water and lead to new lawsuits on the issue.

-- Patrick McGreevy, in Sacramento

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