Like plenty of people, I don’t share Secretary of State Dennis Richardson’s views on the morality of gays and lesbians. On that, in fact, I couldn’t disagree with him more. But I do appreciate his honesty, which says something about his courage even, unfortunately, as it underscores how difficult it can be to have an adult discussion about faith and politics, even in a supposedly tolerant state like Oregon.

In case you haven’t heard, state Democratic Party Chair Jeanne Atkins castigated Richardson late last month for making a “hateful assertion” about gays. Ostensibly worried about “the relentless march of the Republican party toward imposing so-called ‘personal beliefs’ through their policy actions,” she even demanded that Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, “speak out in protest.”

Not to be outdone, advocacy group Basic Rights Oregon tweeted, “Secretary Richardson once again demonstrated he is unqualified to serve our state.”

What did Richardson do to earn such vilification? He agreed to be interviewed for an Oregon Public Broadcasting radio series called “Backstory,” which examines pivotal moments in the lives of people in the public eye. Previous interviewees include state Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and Oregon Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden.

Richardson discussed his discovery of the Mormon faith following military service in Vietnam. This piece of Richardson’s biography is not a surprise. It was well known long before Oregonians elected him to the state’s second highest office last year, as was the fact that his views on social issues tend to fall well to the right of center.

Nonetheless, Atkins was hyperbolically horrified by his response to the following question, posed by interviewer Kate Davidson: “Do you feel in your heart that it is not moral to be gay?”

Here’s Richardson’s full response:

“People have different definitions of morality. And mine, by the understanding that I have from my religious belief, is that it is not moral to have sexual relations with anyone outside of the bonds of marriage. And I know most people do.

“But you asked me a very personal question. And so if I believe that marriage is a sacrament, is a spiritual connection between three individuals — a man, a woman and God, which is traditional marriage — then the mere choice of government or voters to change a definition does not necessarily change the definition with God. And so, so based on my definition, the answer is yes.

“But it doesn’t change the humanity or the acceptance I have for people to make their own choices about such important (matters) and so personal of a nature.”

Richardson does three things here: He explains his faith-based views, distinguishes them from policies adopted by “government or voters” and emphasizes that people get to make their own choices. Yet Atkins, speaking for Oregon’s Democratic Party, all but calls his stated belief in “traditional marriage” an act of hate speech while implying absurdly that the silence of Buehler and Walden on the matter amounts to agreement.

Is this the message that the Democratic Party wants to send? Does it really want to tell thousands of Oregonians that their deeply held religious beliefs render them irremediably offensive to the party notwithstanding other areas in which they might agree — environmental, housing and labor policy, for instance? Does it really want to tell thousands of Oregonians that simply by discussing their beliefs they risk being condemned as hate-mongers? If not, party leaders ought have a talk with Atkins and do what she demanded of Walden and Buehler: Condemn the intolerance she apparently espouses on the party’s behalf.

I asked Atkins on Tuesday whether she believes that Richardson’s religious beliefs render him unqualified to serve as secretary of state.

“It is not his faith-based beliefs that disqualify him,” she responded, backtracking furiously. “It’s the fact that he was willing to express them publicly without at the same time reassuring Oregonians that his views don’t determine” how he’ll conduct his official duties. “People need to know proactively that these beliefs will not govern what he does in office.”

In fact, Richardson has said just this in the past, and a fair reading of his response above leaves no doubt that he sees his faith and his public role as entirely separate.

But Atkins, who preceded Richardson as secretary of state, does raise a good point. Perhaps she should have reassured religious Oregonians that her antipathy would not govern what she did in office.

— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.

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