By JOHN FORTMEYER
SALEM — Although again strongly opposed by some Oregon Christians, a proposal that only made it halfway through the state Legislature last year could very soon wind up becoming law.
The state House of Representatives on Feb. 21 approved, by a vote of 39 to 18, House Bill 4071. It would direct the Oregon Historical Society to raise funds for a statue of the late U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield to replace the Bible-carrying image of Oregon missionary pioneer Jason Lee in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C.
At press time for this newspaper, the proposal was headed to the state Senate for possible action. Christians who testified against the legislation last month before a House committee said they would still try to persuade senators not to endorse the idea.
Last year, the proposal was approved by the state House but failed to reach the full Senate for a vote.
As was the case last year, the proposal’s lead sponsor is Rep. Vic Gilliam (R-Silverton). He considers Hatfield the greatest leader the state ever had as well as a huge influence on his life personally, and contends that a more contemporary figure than Lee should represent Oregon. But Rev. Aaron Auer of ROAR (Restoring Oregon’s Amazing Roots) Ministries, who is spearheading the opposition as he did last year, said the proposal denigrates the state’s spiritual roots by drawing attention away from its Christian heritage. Lee founded Salem and Willamette University and organized the first provisional government in the Oregon Country.
“Jason Lee represents Oregon to the nation,” Auer explained. “And it’s not just about Oregon’s heritage. We’re replacing not just Oregon’s treasure, but a national treasure.”
Auer said that while Gilliam was the only one to speak for the legislation at the House Rules Committee hearing, about two dozen concerned Christians turned out in a show of opposition, with eight to 10 of them giving vocal testimony in favor of keeping the Lee statue. Written testimony also was forwarded to the committee from about 30 people, including some pastors and representatives of the Native American community.
The Oregonian reported that discussion on the House floor just prior to the vote centered mainly on the political hero status in Oregon of Hatfield, who was himself widely known for his Christian faith. But none of the legislators spoke in defense of Lee’s historic role in the state’s founding.
Auer urged Christians who want to see Lee’s role continue to be recognized to contact their state senators and request they vote no on the legislation.
Each state is allowed two statues in the U.S. Capitol hall. The other statue currently representing Oregon depicts John McLoughlin, a fur trade officer, businessman and physician known as the “Father of Oregon” and the first to govern the Oregon Country.
Some of those opposing removal of the Lee statue suggested that McLoughlin’s be replaced instead. But Auer personally does not favor that idea.
“I don’t believe either of them should be replaced,” he said. “But if it’s inevitable, why is Jason Lee only targeted?”
If removed from the U.S. Capitol, the statue of Lee would return to Salem, where there is already an identical statue on the grounds of the Oregon Capitol. The Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, which has Lee’s historic house, last year expressed interest in the Lee statue.