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Efforts to Curb Gay Rights Deepen an American Divide

GOP lawmakers target benefits for homosexuals, reviving national moral debate.

America's contentious debate over the rights of homosexuals has spilled into the halls of Congress this week.

Conservative Republicans are expected to try to roll back a presidential order barring discrimination in federal jobs on the basis of sexual orientation. There's also an attempt to cut off all federal funds to the city of San Francisco because of one of its domestic-partnership laws.

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The efforts are two in a series of sudden, high-profile actions by the Republican leadership aimed at rolling back strides made by the gay-rights movement. In the process, GOP leaders hope to redefine America's social debate about the rights and protections, if any, that should be afforded to homosexuals.

The efforts have enraged gay activists, many Democrats, and some moderate Republicans who've accused the GOP leadership of "gay bashing" to try to gin up the Christian-conservative vote for the midterm elections.

Other Republicans call these moves a sincere but misguided attempt to use legislation to impose individual moral beliefs on others. But some also fear the effort could tear at the heart of the party, splitting the fragile coalition of fiscal and social conservatives who make up the Republican Party's base strength.

BUT the ramifications of the debate go beyond politics. It highlights how far Americans have stretched, both in their tolerance of diversity and their notions about what constitutes "the family." That, say some analysts, is causing a backlash.

For leaders of the Christian conservative movement - who've made opposition to abortion and gay rights a litmus test for those seeking their political support - the latest campaign has taken on the urgency of a moral crusade.

"This is more than politics. It's about a clash between a revolutionary group that is trying to impose moral anarchy on a society built on the Judaic-Christian world view," says Robert Knight of the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank. "The gays are a spear point in a larger cultural war to redefine what a human being is and how we should govern ourselves."

For gay-rights activists, the struggle is just as intense and the stakes as high.

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"Core American values and principles are at stake," says Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights lobbying group in Washington. "Gays and lesbians also have a strong a sense of family values and morality. It's divisive and frightening when one group thinks it's the only one that speaks with truth on morality. That's dangerous."

The issue emerged in late spring, after Christian conservatives met with the Republican leadership to complain that their agenda was being ignored. In mid-June, and on national television, Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Missouri compared homosexuality to alcoholism, sex addiction, and kleptomania.

Gay-rights activists, Democrats, and even some Republicans immediately charged that such rhetoric promotes bigotry, and they cited medical findings that homosexuality is not a disease or a disorder that needs fixing.

Next, a coalition of Christian groups ran full-page ads in leading newspapers praising Senator Lott and reiterating their view that homosexuals engage in "sexual sin." The ads characterized gay people as ultimately self-destructive, and featured an ex-lesbian who found happiness in Christian healing.

Gay-rights groups fired back with ads of their own, pointing out that many gay people are deeply religious and spiritual. These ads featured a happy family of Republicans who say their lesbian daughter "deserves dignity, respect, and a fair shot at life."

Historians and social critics suggest this political debate has emerged now in part because of the "reasonably successful drive" to win civil rights for gay people over the past 20 years. "It's part of a reaction to that success," says James Reed, a history professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

AMERICANS are split over the morality of homosexuality. A Columbia University study this year found that 56 percent disapprove of same-sex relations - down from 75 percent disapproval in 1987.

But Americans also overwhelmingly oppose job discrimination against gay people. A Gallup poll in 1996 found that 84 percent say homosexuals should have equal rights to job opportunities - up from 56 percent in 1977.

"A lot of Americans might tolerate gays now, but they don't like them. It's an easy, unpopular minority to beat up on," says Rich Tafel of the Log Cabin Republicans, the gay wing of the GOP. He says the leadership's strategy will ultimately damage the party and suggests that "honesty, compassion, concern for your neighbor, and tolerance" are a better foundation for its moral platform.

For many gay-rights activists, such as historian and filmmaker Elizabeth Byard, that tolerance would include giving homosexuals the right to marry. "You now have the enforcement of a narrow model of 'the family' in a way that doesn't recognize the reality of many groups of people, not just homosexuals," says Ms. Byard.

But the effort to legitimize gay marriage, particularly in Hawaii, has galvanized conservatives nationwide. John Smid is a former homosexual who says the quest for gay marriage pushes tolerance one step too far.

"To embrace marriage in gay couples would be to remove an ethical standard that would cause a further breakdown in society," says Mr. Smid of Love in Action, a Christian ministry near Memphis, Tenn., created to help homosexuals change their orientation.

Gay marriage creates discomfort even for libertarian columnist James Glassman, who has criticized the Republican leadership's attacks on homosexuality. But he believes a person's private life should be left outside of the country's civil debate.

"I strongly disagree with any attempt to impose moral beliefs on others through legislative acts," says Mr. Glassman. "That is an area that should be off-limits."

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