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American Legion threatens to shut down renegade post in Portland

Post commander Sean Davis steps outside of the American Legion Post 134 in northeast Portland in January.
(Kristyna Wentz-Graff / For The Times)

The Oregon state leadership of the American Legion has threatened to shut down a renegade post in northeast Portland for opening its bar to the general public and breaking other rules of the 97-year-old veterans organization.

Post 134 stands out as young and feisty compared with others around the country, playing host to indie-rock shows, sexual assault survivor groups and trivia nights catering to gay, lesbian and transgender people, regardless of whether they are veterans or not. It was the subject of a recent Times article.

The post commander, 43-year-old Sean Davis, believes that opening the doors to nonveterans can breathe new life into the organization and help bridge the gap between the shrinking number of veterans and the rest of society.

But in a Jan. 11 letter to Davis, the Legion’s judge advocate for Oregon, Gerald Shorey, said that based on The Times’ article, the post appeared to be flouting the organization’s constitution and bylaws.

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“The American Legion is not in the bar business,” he wrote, suggesting that opening the bar to guests not accompanied by members not only violated Legion rules but also the post’s liquor license.

A spokesperson for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission said welcoming nonmembers to the bar was perfectly legal.

The letter also said the post was being placed under investigation for Davis’ plan to stop acknowledging the Sons of the American Legion and the Women’s Auxiliary — groups for relatives of members — and instead refer to those relatives with the gender-neutral term “allies.”

Finally, the letter suggested that the post had ignored Legion restrictions on promoting political candidates — a concern that 79-year-old Shorey said arose because The Times’ story described a meeting of artists opposed to Donald Trump.

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“Because of the serious nature of these allegations, you are requested to cease and desist all activities in violation of the above mentioned until an investigation can be completed,” the letter said.

The state organization plans to send a team of investigators to meet with Davis, who was wounded in Iraq and awarded a Purple Heart.

Davis denied that the post had broken any bylaws but said he would like to work with state leaders to make sure it remains open and continues to fulfill his inclusive vision.

He said the post maintains a sign-up sheet for guests that adheres to Legion standards and reserves some times exclusively for veterans.

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“We’re not just trying to be another bar,” he said.

He also said that he would now recognize the Sons of the American Legion and the Women’s Auxiliary: “I respect that tradition. I’d just like to let people who don’t identify with a gender binary be part of the American Legion.”

The new “allies” classification would be for people who don’t have family members who are veterans but want to be formally affiliated with the post, he said.

As for the anti-Trump artists, Davis said: “We’re not a political place. If it was a group of anybody who wanted to do good in the community, we would have had them here and helped them out.”

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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs projects that over the next 25 years, the veteran population will fall from 21 million to 15 million. The Legion has 14,000 posts, but its national membership has declined from a peak of 3.3 million in 1947 to 2 million today. Only about 30,000 are veterans under the age of 40.

Davis said his post has attracted many younger veterans.

“I’m proud of what we’ve done,” he said. “We’ve inspired the people around us and we’ve helped many young veterans find purpose.”

Seely is a special correspondent.

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