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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Legislature to protect short, fat people

Acting Gov. Nesbitt to sign anti-discrimination bill
Critics predict colorblind, left-handed, allergic-to-cashews come next

Steve Novick, who stands 4-foot-8 1/2, recalls being playfully scooped up by larger co-workers, who also would pat him on the head and remark about his height. "People in authority will very easily make comments about height that they wouldn't make about race or gender," said Novick, a Portland consultant.

Jeanne Toombs understands Novick's frustration. The board member of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance says overweight people routinely are discriminated against because of their size. "It's not fair. No matter what you think of fat people, they deserve to be treated like human beings," said Toombs, 59, a piano teacher who weighs 300 pounds.

People like Novick and Toombs would get special protection under an AFL-CIO backed measure, supported by acting Gov. Tim Nesbitt, that would make Oregon the first-in-the-nation to add "weight and height" to its anti-discrimination law. The law applies mainly to the workplace but also covers landlords and real estate interactions. Workers employed directly by labor unions are not covered.

Most states have laws prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, age, gender, disability and other factors. A handful offer protection for gays and lesbians. But even Massachusetts does not include weight and height in its anti-discrimination law. The District of Columbia, however, bans appearance discrimination and San Francisco and Santa Cruz in California prohibit weight and height discrimination.

The problem - at least with weight - isn't going away. Federal government statistics show that U.S. obesity rates have risen to an all-time high. Nearly one-third, or 32 percent of adult Americans, are considered obese, at a time when employers are considering ways to demand healthier behavior, such as no smoking.

Sen. Ben Westlund, a Bend Democrat who was elected as a Republican and who is sponsoring the Oregon bill, said it's a question of civil rights.

"This is one of the last physical aspects of people that you can acceptably laugh about," said
Westlund, who is Caucasian, slightly overweight, and of above-average height. "You can be a shock jock on the radio and talk about fat people for a solid week and no one would ever think of having you lose your job. It's still acceptable."

Not everyone is persuaded. "We might as well add colorblind, left-handed, allergic-to-cashews and get it over with," said Lars Larson, a conservative talk-show host and news analyst.

Larson envisions Oregon scaring off businesses if it expands the protections to include short and overweight workers. "There's a limit on how far you can legislate your way to paradise," he said. "Good intentions don't necessarily make for good legislation."

The courts aren't convinced, either. Because there's no specific protection, people claiming discrimination in the workplace or for housing must prove in court that their weight problem is a disability - which is a protected class in state law. Oregon courts, however, usually reject such claims.

"People can lose weight," said attorney Jim Pasero, publisher of Brainstorm NW magazine. "As that line of argument goes, why receive special treatment? There is some of that attitude in the courts - that this should not rise to the level of race and gender - the rights of which are so important to protect."

Cases tossed out of court include a 6-foot, 285-pound man who sued Fred Meyer, claiming he was denied a job because of his weight; and a 230-pound woman who sued an Oregon City car dealership after being denied a receptionist job.

Westlund said advocates were shunned by lawmakers 10 years ago when he proposed a similar bill. He was more confident of passage now because of an increased awareness of the issues.

Novick acknowledges the law may be subject to a repeal initiative, because it doesn't define short or fat. He said it's still socially acceptable to denigrate short and overweight people.

"Fatter people and shorter people get promoted less. Shorter people make less than their taller counterparts," said Novick, who published a memoir last fall entitled "The U.S. Senate - Beyond Measure."

Toombs doesn't buy the argument she can simply diet and lose weight. "I spent 25 years of my life trying to get thin," she said. "All I ever got was fatter, and I felt like a failure. I thought it was my fault, and it wasn't. People come in different sizes, they always have and they always will. I haven't robbed a bank. I work with children. I'm doing good in the world."

The Boston Globe/AP, May 17 By KEN MAGUIRE

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