Homosexuality an Election-Year Issue

Wednesday, May 24th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — When city commissioners adopted a bitterly contested resolution opposing discrimination against homosexuals, opponents didn't back down.

They began circulating petitions to force a vote in November on a proposed city charter amendment that would nullify the toothless resolution and prohibit commissions from approving gay-rights measures of any kind.

``Once the proverbial door opens, it continues to open,'' says Fred Weber, leader of the petition drive.

If his group collects enough signatures, Traverse City will join a growing list of cities and states where the debate over gay rights is being played out at the ballot box.

Referendums are proposed on same-sex marriage, on teaching public school students about homosexuality and on whether gays should receive the same civil rights protections as racial and religious minorities. Many votes are being requested by groups who oppose what they call ``special rights'' for homosexuals.

``To our knowledge, there have never been this many (gay-rights issues) on the ballot,'' says David Elliott, spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. ``It's a backlash against the progress we've made toward equality.''

The Christian Coalition is seeking a referendum on repealing a gay-rights ordinance in Dade County, Fla. The group didn't get enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot in September but will mount another effort this fall, said Anthony Verdugo, the group's Dade County chairman.

Oregon activists are collecting signatures in support of banning homosexual instruction in public schools. And critics of an anti-discrimination measure adopted this year in Davenport, Iowa, have begun a drive to overturn it.

Vermont remains the only state granting gay couples legal rights similar to marriage under a law recognizing civil unions. The issue may go before Maine voters soon, but California voters banned same-sex marriages in March and a similar proposal could be on the Nevada ballot this fall.

Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan, says people are taking matters into their own hands because officeholders are ignoring their wishes.

``There's a growing disparity between where the people of this country stand ... and where politicians, pressured by homosexual political action committees and their allies in the media, are voting,'' says Glenn, who coaches activists across Michigan working to amend city charters.

They are basing their efforts on a precedent set in Cincinnati, where voters in 1993 amended the charter to overturn a gay-rights ordinance adopted the previous year. The amendment was upheld by a federal appeals court, a decision that became final when the U.S. Supreme Court refused in 1998 to review the case.

Gay-rights foes across Michigan are using language in the Cincinnati case. ``It's been tested before the highest court available and found to be constitutional,'' Glenn says.

Carol Anderson, leader of the Traverse City Campaign Against Discrimination, says she still smarts from being told seven years ago she could not volunteer with a local youth agency because she is a lesbian.

``You hear it again and again: `There is no discrimination in this town,''' she says. ``Well, I know from personal experience that that simply isn't true.''

Opponents to gay rights say it's a matter of religious principle.

``To me, homosexuality is wrong,'' Weber says. ``I follow the word of God and it tells me these things are wrong.''

The Rev. John Williams, a leader of the Grand Rapids petition drive, says gays do not qualify as a persecuted minority. Unlike blacks, he says, homosexuals are not economically deprived and haven't been denied an education or the right to vote.

``We maintain that people in the gay community already have equal rights like everybody else,'' says Williams, who is black.


On the Net:

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force: http://www.ngltf.org/

American Family Association: http://www.afa.net