By JOHN FORTMEYER
SALEM — For the fourth time in as many years, state-authorized re-moval of a statue of an Oregon missionary pioneer from the nation’s capital has been prevented — but this time largely because of just two legislative leaders.
And some Oregon Christians who adamantly oppose the removal are giving prayers of thanks.
Despite massive pressure placed on him March 2 in an unprecedented, emotion-filled bipartisan display at the Oregon Capitol by almost the entire state House delegation, Senate President Peter Courtney refused to let a bill passed by the House go to the Senate floor. Agreeing with his firm stance was fellow Democrat Ginny Burdick, Senate majority leader.
The following day, the Legislature adjourned until next year, killing the legislation.
The bill, which on Feb. 26 passed the House 53-5, called for the commissioning of two new statues — of former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield and Native American leader Chief Joseph — to replace the statues of Oregon missionary Jason Lee and pre-statehood leader John McLoughlin that have stood in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall for 63 years.
As reported by The Oregonian, blockage of the bill became an emotionally charged topic at the Capitol because one of its two co-authors, Rep. Vic Gilliam (R-Silverton), has been given a likely diagnosis of life-threatening amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and now finds walking and talking difficult. Legislators so clearly recognized Gilliam’s intense desire to see Hatfield, who he considered a personal mentor, honored in the nation’s capital, that all but one of the 60 House members marched with Gilliam into Courtney’s office, lobby and hallway to demand action on the bill.
But their efforts went nowhere with Courtney. According to the newspaper, he and Burdick disliked that the Hatfield proposal didn’t follow a state panel’s recommendations that the current statues be replaced with depictions of Chief Joseph and of Abigail Scott Dunaway, a women’s rights advocate, newspaper editor and writer.
Gilliam had also proposed three earlier bills in other years for a Hatfield statue but they also went nowhere, thus the killing of the latest legislation was a big disappointment for both him and bill co-author Rep. Brian Clem (D-Salem). Over the past eight years, Clem has become an extremely close friend to Gilliam and a supporter and devotional partner during Gilliam’s health crisis.
On the other hand, the failure of the latest bill to advance is yet another huge relief for outspoken Christian opponents who since 2013 have feared passage of Gilliam’s bills, including Rev. Aaron Auer of Salem-based ROAR (Reviving Oregon’s Amazing Roots) Ministries and Vaughn Longanecker of Aloha-based Christian Heritage of the Northwest Ministries. They know that this was the closest call yet, with the House having passed the bill.
Auer, Longanecker and other evangelical Christians believe taking the Lee statue out of the U.S. Capitol would denigrate the state’s spiritual roots by drawing attention away from Oregon’s religious heritage. They are dismayed by what they consider an effort by state leaders to see re-minders of those Christians roots — such as the Bible held in Lee’s hand in the statue — taken from public settings.
Longanecker adds that he knows of no equal to Lee in the state’s past and that his infuence on church, education and government was massive.
“There is no religious leader, political leader, or educational leader who has had a similar influence on all three institutions in all of history,” Longanecker wrote in a letter to Courtney. “Instead of trying to replace his memorial, we should be working on renewing his rightful place, in not just Oregon’s history, but in the history of the world.”
According to The Oregonian, Gilliam and Clem plan to try again in 2017, and Courtney said he has been talking to Gilliam about a proposal for next session. But that hinges on the legislators being re-elected this fall.
“We do rejoice in the Lord prevailing once again to preserve our heritage,” said Auer. To help prevent any future such bills from advancing, Auer plans to tour all 36 counties of the state this summer, “bringing attention to the fact that the true father of Oregon is Jason Lee, and why.”
Auer also encouraged Oregon voters to support a current initiative effort that would place limits on what legislation can be submitted in an “emergency clause.” He contends that Gilliam’s bill was, in fact, a “fake emergency.”
Auer also commended Rep. Cedric Hayden (R-Roseburg), the only House member who chose not to join his colleagues in the march to Courtney’s office.