Wilson Signs Bill on Gay Job Rights : Legislation: Governor OKs compromise measure after his veto of a similar bill last year sparked statewide protests. Homosexual community is 'surprised, relieved.'

TIMES SACRAMENTO BUREAU CHIEF

Gov. Pete Wilson signed compromise legislation Friday outlawing job discrimination against gays and lesbians, in sharp contrast to a veto last year that ignited weeks of statewide protests.

The governor said the bill he approved will provide protections in the workplace for homosexuals that are "far less onerous and costly to employers" than the measure he vetoed.

Wilson said the new bill, compared to the old one, places in law a more streamlined grievance procedure for workers, one that discourages court litigation.

The act forbids job discrimination because of sexual orientation--in hiring, firing, promotions or demotions. Religious organizations and small businesses with fewer than five employees are exempt from the law.

In reality, there will be little if any immediate impact from the legislation because it merely writes into law what the Administration already has been doing on its own, several sources said. But by writing the protections into law, it will prevent a future governor or court from rolling back the safeguards without new legislation.

Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Encino), who wrote the bill that Wilson signed and the one he vetoed last year, said Friday that this year's version is "a better bill."

"It's just as good for those who face discrimination and it's better for business, less burdensome," Friedman said in an interview.

"This sends a clear message that California does not tolerate bigotry. I thank the governor for doing the right thing and putting this controversial issue behind us."

Leaders of the gay and lesbian community in Southern California were amazed that Wilson signed the legislation. Most had anticipated a repeat of last year's veto and had even laid plans for protest marches if Wilson rejected the bill.

"We're incredibly surprised and relieved," said Chris Fowler, acting executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation in Los Angeles.

"This is certainly a victory for the community," said David M. Smith, public information director for the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center. "It's been a long, hard battle."

But Smith said the euphoria over the signing of Friedman's bill was tempered by Wilson's promised veto of much broader legislation by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco). The Brown legislation, among other things, seeks to strengthen anti-discrimination protections for workers who are disabled or do not speak English, as well as homosexuals.

Almost exactly a year ago, after much agonizing, Wilson sided with Republican conservatives and vetoed the earlier Friedman bill. That veto sparked angry demonstrations by gay rights activists all over California, including one protest by several thousand that nearly closed the Capitol. For weeks, the governor could not go anywhere in public without hearing the wrath of demonstrators.

A statewide survey by the Times Poll found that Californians by a narrow margin thought Wilson should have signed last year's bill. The poll showed that people overwhelmingly supported the general concept of equal job opportunities for homosexuals, although they were closely divided over the specific bill.

Two weeks before last year's veto, the California Republican Central Committee adopted a resolution demanding that Wilson reject the measure, calling it "anti-family." And last weekend, the committee again adopted a resolution putting pressure on the governor to veto the latest version.

After Wilson rejected the official GOP resolution Friday, state party Chairman Jim Dignan of Modesto criticized the governor and predicted that the action will further weaken Wilson politically among grass-roots Republican activists.

"These are the people who elected him in 1990," Dignan said. "To be reelected in 1994, he's going to have to do a lot of damage control. . . . It's a bad, anti-business bill with unnecessary burdens."

From the far right, the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, head of the Traditional Values Coalition, charged that "the governor is so anti-Christian he is willing to sacrifice businesses to more regulations and constraints at the altar of the 'special rights' homosexual agenda."

Sheldon also said "this divisive action will create a fracture in the Republican Party and divert energy from President Bush's campaign."

The key difference between the Friedman bill that Wilson signed and the earlier version he vetoed is one of bureaucratic procedure. Under the approved measure, jurisdiction over anti-homosexual job discrimination rests with the state labor commissioner. Under the rejected version, cases would have been handled by the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

The state labor commissioner puts grievance cases on a much faster track than the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. And once a worker asks the labor commissioner to decide a case, the claimant cannot later take it to court. By contrast, cases before the Fair Employment and Housing department--which investigates many forms of discrimination--frequently wind up in court.

"The protection against discrimination provided by procedures of the labor commissioner are far less onerous and costly to employers," Wilson said in his formal statement announcing the signing.

He said the bill (AB 2601) "provides reasonable and adequate protection against employment discrimination, while still meeting the tests of fairness to employers and protection of California's jobs climate."

In vetoing last year's bill (AB 101), Wilson had said he feared "adding substantially to the flood-tide of litigation which increasingly and importantly threatens California's competitiveness as a place to do business." He said the measure especially would have burdened small firms.

Not long after Wilson vetoed the first Friedman bill, an appellate court essentially agreed with the governor that the state labor commissioner already had the authority to protect gays and lesbians from job discrimination. That ruling later was temporarily set aside pending a state Supreme Court review of another case, but in the meantime Wilson directed the labor commissioner to provide the protections administratively.

This year's bill received no major opposition from business. In fact, the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Manufacturers Assn., although remaining neutral, worked with Friedman in drafting the measure.

In signing the legislation, Wilson said: "Government must make a greater effort to narrowly tailor remedies. We must take seriously the responsibility to balance the need to provide a remedy against the cost and burden of coercive intervention by the state. When government is compelled to intervene it should do so in the most limited, least intrusive manner possible consistent with achieving needed protection."

Missing from Wilson's statement this year was the kind of volatile rhetoric that had angered many conservatives last year, even though he had vetoed the bill as they had demanded. In rejecting the measure, the governor, who is regarded as a moderate on social issues, said he was strongly tempted to sign the measure because of the abhorrent excesses of a "tiny minority of mean-spirited, gay-bashing bigots."

As a result, Wilson wound up alienating not only gay activists but the religious right.

On Friday, word spread among gay activists that Wilson was going to sign the measure.

"It was absolutely unexpected," said Steve Martin, president of the Stonewall Democratic Club of Los Angeles.

"We commend the governor for standing up to the religious bigots in the party," said Tim Kincaid of the Los Angeles Log Cabin Republican Club, a gay political group.

Speculation was widespread among gay activists that national GOP politics had influenced Wilson's decision.

Martin theorized that the anti-gay tenor of the Republican National Convention helped nudge Wilson into signing the bill. "I think Wilson felt this was the only way he could put the divisiveness of the family values issue to bed," Martin said.

At the same time, gay leaders said Wilson will never be able to completely erase the bitter memories of his earlier veto. "I don't think he'll ever be forgiven for it," Fowler said.

And on the political right, the indications were that it will be a long time, if ever, before Wilson is forgiven for signing the measure.

"The governor, by signing this bill, is sanctioning homosexuality as a protected lifestyle and a protected political activity," said Lance Fortin, lobbyist for the Traditional Values Coalition. "This is a political game and, unfortunately, Gov. Wilson bowed to that."

Like most Republican legislators, Fortin said that current administrative remedies were sufficient to protect gays and that placing the safeguards in law was not necessary. The bill received only four Republican votes on its journey through the Legislature.

This year's measure did not generate the firestorm of controversy leading up to Wilson's action that last year's did. There were several reasons for this, sources said Friday.

One explanation is that the summer-long budget stalemate far overshadowed all other legislation. Another is that opponents on the religious right may have been overconfident because of last year's veto.

"People basically were tired of the issue," lobbyist Fortin of the Traditional Values Coalition said. "Many said, 'Why is this still here?' The only thing positive I can see coming out of this is that I don't think the religious community--the traditional values community--is ever going to let its guard down again."

But probably more important in diluting the controversy was how Wilson and Friedman handled the issue. This time the governor did not "lead with his chin"--as one aide put it--by declaring ahead of time that he was likely to sign the bill. Wilson kept silent about the measure until he signed it.

And Friedman said he "intentionally tried to keep as low a profile as possible" because "I didn't think it would be helpful to the bill or human relations in California to have a vitriolic, hostile debate."

"I personally was outraged by some of the violent reaction to the veto last year and I didn't want to do anything that would contribute to that kind of reaction if he vetoed the bill again. I made an effort not to seek as much publicity this time," Friedman said.

Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers Bettina Boxall, Douglas P. Shuit and Jack Cheevers in Los Angeles.

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