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A Small Federal Precedent for Gays : Extension of anti-bias language in quake relief package is laudable

The $8.6-billion earthquake aid package, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton, contains a little-noticed precedent: It protects gays who seek quake relief from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Although this safeguard applies only to emergency earthquake assistance, it is significant because it is the first time that gay men and lesbians have been accorded such federal civil rights protection.

Reps. Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles) and Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) added sexual orientation to standard federal anti-discrimination protections--which outlaw bias based on race, color, creed, religion, gender and national origin--in the application process for federal disaster relief.

Though intended to protect against unfair denials of disaster aid, the change extends to housing rented with emergency-relief checks, housing officials believe. The protection is warranted for this disaster because neither federal nor state laws ban housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. A Los Angeles ordinance does outlaw housing bias based on sexual orientation but it lacks the clout of the strong federal fair-housing laws that protect minorities.

Gay men and women are not the most common victims of housing discrimination. Minorities and individuals with large families generally encounter greater prejudice. But the Northridge earthquake has made finding housing difficult for all but the most affluent because it damaged thousands of homes and apartments and increased the competition for affordable rental housing. A tighter market is conducive to bias because it allows landlords greater selectivity.

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Hundreds of homeowners and tenants who have been displaced by the quake believe they have suffered discrimination and have filed complaints. Many would-be renters know their rights and to whom they should complain because of a noteworthy public-service campaign by the Fair Housing Congress and the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which leafleted disaster assistance centers. The Clinton Administration official in charge of fair housing, Roberta Achtenberg, has been to Los Angeles to address discrimination complaints since the quake.

Extending broad federal civil rights protections to gays and lesbians has long been politically impossible in Washington. Many politicians have opposed creating a new protected class. This change prompted no uproar, perhaps because of the narrow application. Still, a laudable precedent has been set.


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