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S.D. Council Approves Gay Rights Ordinance : Government: Religious right vows ballot referendum in an attempt to overturn law’s overwhelming passage.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Homosexuals won new protections against discrimination by landlords, employers and private businesses Tuesday when the San Diego City Council overwhelmingly approved the controversial Human Dignity Ordinance.

But the victory for gay and lesbian activists who spent two years lobbying for the new law seemed likely to touch off a larger political battle as leaders of the religious right immediately said they would make good on threats to overturn the ordinance via a ballot referendum.

“The plan now is simply to prepare language for the referendum process,” said the Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition, who was active in the successful effort to strip Irvine homosexuals of protections under that city’s anti-discrimination ordinance.

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Sheldon said he would immediately begin gearing up a fund-raising and political campaign against the measure, working in part through a network of like-minded San Diego churches. Two local church leaders, Greg Bolden of St. Stephen’s Church of God in Christ and Alan Shryer of the Peninsula Christian Church, promised support after Tuesday’s vote.

Sheldon, who will have 30 days after the ordinance’s second reading to gather 28,293 signatures of registered voters to call a referendum, promised to be ready with specific petition language when the law comes back to the council for a final vote April 16.

“I think the hardest job is going to be getting the 35,000 signatures,” said Sheldon, who estimated that that number will be needed to guarantee 28,293 valid signatures. “San Diegans are traditionally conservative, and they do not see homosexuals as an insular and discrete minority.”

Gays, whose political leadership has been depleted by the deaths in 1988 and 1989 of prominent activists Brad Truax, Neil Good and Doug Scott, have already begun fund raising and building a political organization for a fall campaign, said Nicole Ramirez-Murray, a member of the San Diego Human Dignity Ordinance task force. Ramirez-Murray refused to say how much money has been raised.

“The main thing is that this is a basic civil rights issue,” he said, “and that’s how we will frame it. We don’t want any special privileges. We don’t want any special status.”

If the petition drive is successful, the council could rescind the ordinance, call a special election or place it on the ballot for the November general election.

The depth of the sentiment displayed by both sides at two council debates on the ordinance appears to presage a political campaign as bitter as the 1987 vote by which voters overwhelmingly rejected the council’s tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

If reaffirmed in two weeks, Tuesday’s 8-1 vote would add San Diego to a list of California cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, Santa Barbara and Oakland that have laws prohibiting various forms of discrimination against homosexuals.

A Sept. 27 review by Deputy City Atty. Mary Kay Jackson concluded that most of the protections in the ordinance “are not currently afforded by either federal or state law” and that the ordinance would not provide gays with more protections than other classes such as race, sex, religion, national origin or physical disability.

The proposal would outlaw discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing and real estate transactions, education, business establishments and the provision of city facilities and services.

Anyone who believes he or she is a victim of such bias would be allowed to seek a court injunction to halt it and sue for as much as three times the actual amount of damages, or as little as $250. Punitive damages would be allowed in some cases. San Diego City Atty. John Witt’s office would also be allowed to take legal action.

Religious organizations and their schools would be exempt from the employment discrimination provisions, and duplexes in which the owner occupies one apartment would not be subject to the housing section of the ordinance.

In 90 minutes of sometimes passionate testimony Tuesday, the ordinance’s backers demanded additional protections from what they said is institutionalized discrimination homosexuals face every day. Opponents, some of whom characterized homosexuality as an abnormal life style, urged the council not to give gays a special, protected status that will cost the city money.

“The proposed ordinance puts San Diego on record as equating anal sodomy in the same moral and legal category as the handicapped, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other true minorities,” Sheldon told the council.

But the Rev. David Farrell, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church, responded that “the issue before us today is whether any of the citizens of San Diego ought to be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation.”

“Ladies and gentleman, you have a chance to make history today in the city of San Diego,” Farrell said. “It is not too late. It is not too soon. The time is now to make this decision and to make it in favor of the Human Dignity Ordinance.”

Only Councilman Bruce Henderson opposed the measure, saying that he did not see “clear, convincing evidence” that homosexuals suffer discrimination. Henderson’s proposal to immediately put the ordinance on the ballot failed for lack of a second.

But Councilman John Hartley said “the issue is very simple. It’s the right to dignity and respect for all human beings, and I think that right should extend to all human beings, including those with alternative sexual orientations.”


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