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Gay Rights Issues Reverberate In Courts, on Campaign Trail

MELINDA PARAS and the Rev. Lou Sheldon have almost nothing in common. She's the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. He heads the Traditional Values Coalition. But on one thing these political polar opposites agree: Issues important to homosexuals and families are likely to be hot political topics this presidential election year.

"[They're] going to be a prime issue," says Mr. Sheldon, whose group claims to represent 30,000 churches around the country and counts on presumptive Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole to support its cause.

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Ms. Paras, on the other hand, says that while the people she represents have been disappointed in some of President Clinton's actions, they will vote "overwhelmingly" to reelect him.

In groundbreaking court cases, in state legislatures around the country, in philosophically pointed congressional proposals, and in the race for the White House, the controversy over gay rights is a major element.

Among recent developments:

All sides are watching the outcome of a case in Hawaii that could legalize same-gender marriages. The state supreme court has ruled that the state must show why Hawaii's law banning such marriages (which has been challenged by three homosexual couples) should not be overturned on the grounds that it violates equal-protection provisions of the state constitution.

Scrambling to avert the possible impact of the Hawaii case on other parts of the country, 24 states have taken action to prevent same-sex marriages from being legally recognized outside Hawaii. Article IV, Section 1 of the US Constitution says "full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state."

So far, Utah and South Dakota have joined Hawaii in enacting laws that marriage can be only between a man and a woman. Such legislation has been defeated in Maine, Mississippi, New Mexico, Virginia, and Wyoming, but is pending in 16 other states: Alabama, Alaska, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington, and Wisconsin.

In another court case, the United States Supreme Court will rule on Colorado's 1992 ballot initiative that bans local governments from prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. (The Colorado Supreme Court ruled against the state's anti-gay-rights law. The state appealed that decision to the US Supreme Court.)

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Decisions in both the Hawaii and the Colorado cases are expected this summer - just as the presidential campaign heats to a full boil. If they go the way gay-rights activists hope, these cases could have tremendous impact on such things as spousal benefits in the workplace, court testimony, insurance and survivor claims, and child-custody disputes.

Both sides in these highly emotional issues have champions in Congress. Bills in the House and Senate would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, one of the lead sponsors of the Senate bill, calls this "the next step" for civil rights.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina has drafted a bill designed to "stop the waste of taxpayer funds on activities by government agencies to encourage its employees or officials to accept homosexuality as a legitimate or normal lifestyle."

While Mr. Helms's bill has just three cosponsors, Mr. Kennedy's "Employment Nondiscrimination Act" has 165 House and Senate sponsors. Also in Congress, there is a growing movement to repeal a provision of the defense budget bill that forces discharge of service members diagnosed as having the HIV virus.

THIS legal action comes against the backdrop of considerable state and local activity. The Salt Lake City school board recently voted to ban all extracurricular school groups in order to prevent one, the "Gay/Straight Alliance," from operating in city high schools. A controversial pilot program in Portland, Ore., is training teachers to deal more sensitively with homosexual students.

The Boston City Council last week approved health-insurance benefits for partners of city employees who are gay. Also in the Boston area, the family of a teenage girl has sued Brookline school officials for allowing a teacher's lesbian relationship to be discussed in class.

While much of the political activity in this area in the past came in the form of state ballot measures, state action now has shifted to legislatures. According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the number of state bills related to such issues has doubled in the past month to 109. Most of these have to do with marriage. Others deal with hate crimes, discrimination, sodomy, and AIDS. Of these, NGLTF says 43 bills are perceived as "friendly" and 65 are "anti-gay."

There are clear differences between Mr. Dole and Mr. Clinton on such issues. Early in the campaign, Dole managed to offend both sides when his campaign first refused a $1,000 contribution from the Log Cabin Republicans (which represents gay members of the GOP) and then announced that it had been mistaken in doing so.

At a conservative rally in Iowa, Mr. Dole signed a "marriage protection resolution" declaring that states "should not legitimize homosexual relationships by legalizing same-sex marriages...." Yet Dole has voted to increase federal funding of AIDS research - a major issue with gay-rights activists.

Clinton has appointed more homosexuals to senior administration posts than has any other president. But he has been somewhat of a disappointment to his many gay supporters: settling for a "don't-ask-don't-tell" policy regarding homosexuals in the military, not sending Justice Department lawyers to argue against Colorado's anti-gay rights law before the US Supreme Court, and not speaking out in favor of same-sex marriages.

Still, Paras says, "On many of the key issues, he has been there for us. I believe that if gays and lesbians get themselves to the polls, they'll be voting for Bill Clinton."

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