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Oregon House panel: Reschke’s comments about non-Christians didn’t break rules

A southern Oregon lawmaker’s comments on a podcast suggesting non-Christians aren’t qualified to hold elected office didn’t violate legislative rules around a safe and respectful workplace, a House panel determined Monday.

Rep. E. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls, works on the House floor at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.

Rep. E. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls, works on the House floor at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.

Amanda Loman / Oregon Capital Chronicle

The House Committee on Conduct voted 3-1 that Rep. E. Werner Reschke, R-Malin, didn’t violate House rules when he told a conservative Christian podcast host that people want Christians, not atheists, Muslims or “materialists,” in government. Rep. Jason Kropf, D-Bend, joined Republican Reps. Kevin Mannix of Salem and Ed Diehl of Stayton in voting to clear Reschke, while Rep. Thuy Tran, D-Portland, voted against it.

Reschke did not respond Monday to a request for comment.

The investigation into Reschke stemmed from comments he made on a conservative Christian talk show in January that were reported by OPB. During a conversation with former Arkansas lawmaker Jason Rapert, Reschke said he was inspired to run for office because of men including George Washington, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.

“You look at men and the struggles that they faced and the faith that they had, and those are the type of people that you want in government making tough decisions during tough times,” he said. “You don’t want a materialist, you don’t want an atheist, you don’t want a Muslim, you don’t want, you want somebody who understands what truth is and understands the nature of man, the nature of government and the nature of God.”

Democratic leaders condemned his comments and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments that newly appointed state Rep. Dwayne Yunker, R-Grants Pass, had expressed on his campaign website. On the final day of the legislative session, members of civil rights groups and state Rep. Tom Andersen, D-Salem, gathered outside the Capitol to protest Reschke’s and Yunker’s comments.

Meanwhile, an attorney with Jackson Lewis, a Portland law firm, was quietly investigating whether Reschke’s comments violated legislative rules meant to ensure the Capitol is a safe and respectful workplace. Two people who attorney Sarah Ryan described as mandatory reporters said they had been approached by others with concerns about Reschke’s comments, including that at least one person who didn’t want to be identified felt that Reschke’s comments adversely impacted their work at the Capitol.

Legislative rules require state representatives, senators and nonpartisan supervisors to report any behavior that could violate the Capitol’s workplace policies. Legislative Equity Officer Bor Yang hired Ryan to investigate the reports, as well as a separate complaint about a July 2022 invitation from Reschke to a prayer vigil that was interpreted as threatening to LGBTQ+ individuals. Ryan quickly dismissed that complaint, saying there was no indication it affected anyone at the Capitol.

She spoke to a dozen people about his comments about Muslims and atheists and found that two were concerned about how Reschke’s comments would affect their work at the Capitol. One was troubled by years-old tweets Reschke had made about Muslims, and another individual feared that Reschke viewed them as lesser.

“Most of the people that I interviewed were at least initially offended by the comments that were made by Representative Reschke,” Ryan said. “Some had one-on-one conversations with the representative and were satisfied with his explanation, but there were only two people who indicated that the comments had an impact on their work at the Capitol.”

Tran, who is Buddhist, said she absolutely sees an effect from Reschke’s words.

“Rep. Reschke’s comment was offensive, and it will impact my working environment and it will affect my interactions with him,” she said.

‘Lessons for all of us’

Kropf said the comments were clearly disrespectful to Muslims and atheists, but that the Legislature’s workplace harassment rules aren’t clear on what conduct outside of the Capitol should or shouldn’t be allowed. He personally believed Reschke’s comments, made as a state representative on a podcast, were related to his work in the Legislature, but he said he understood how Mannix and Diehl could reach a different conclusion.

“I hope that he has been — I think he has been — reflective and appreciative of the impact those words have had and the work that he has to do to continue to restore trust,” Kropf said. “There’s lessons for all of us to learn in this. To me, what this reinforces is that we can be guided by our faith, we can be guided by our beliefs, but we can also be respectful of the faith and the beliefs of others and how that they guide them in our governance for our state.”

Mannix echoed that he believed Reschke has reflected on the comments, and that he hopes Yang will consider those comments as she prepares training for legislators to follow. Reschke did not address the committee and did not respond to a call or emailed questions about the decision or any reflection.

Diehl said he was concerned that legislative workplace rules could become so broad that they stifle lawmakers’ abilities to express themselves and discuss legislation.

“We’re looking at something that wasn’t even said in the building,” he said. “It was said completely outside the building. It wasn’t even directed at any particular individual, and we’re here having a discussion on it.”

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501(c)(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and X.

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