Justices to hear gay rights case


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- This is the story of a car dealer, a policewoman and the chasm that divides them in the struggle over homosexuality in the United States.

The car dealer is Wilfred G. Perkins of Colorado Springs, a quintessential family man who is worried about the gay rights movement. He is chairman of Colorado for Family Values, which successfully pushed for an amendment to the Colorado state constitution so that anti-discrimination laws could not protect homosexuals.

The police officer is Angela Romero, a 19-year veteran of the Denver Police Department, a lesbian in an occupation dominated by macho men.

She says she has suffered from discrimination and needs legal protection. So she joined other gay rights advocates in challenging -- successfully so far -- the amendment Mr. Perkins fought hard to pass.

Like millions of others with divergent lifestyles, experiences and convictions, Mr. Perkins and Officer Romero have arrived at seemingly irreconcilable positions in the legal, moral and religious dispute between "family values" and "gay rights."

Approved in 1992

Today, the Supreme Court is to hear arguments on the constitutionality of the Colorado amendment -- Amendment 2, the dormant provision that 53 percent of Colorado's voters inserted into the state constitution in 1992. The amendment was immediately challenged in court, and it provoked a nationwide ,, boycott against the state.

If the court strikes down Amendment 2, it would remove a major obstacle to the gay rights drive for protected status. If the court upholds the amendment, the nationwide drive to exclude homosexuals -- and perhaps other unpopular groups -- from the coverage of civil rights laws will gain momentum. The amendment's backers say that groups are waiting to campaign for similar policies in at least eight other states.

The ruling, expected by July 1996, may prove significant for gay rights, civil rights, states' rights and for the religious right.

Mr. Perkins -- an ex-athlete and coach, husband for 45 years, father of four, grandfather of nine and a member of the Presbyterian Church of America -- is this conservative town's Chrysler-Plymouth dealer. He is 67, a genial, gray-haired man who has been selling cars for a half-century.

Mr. Perkins said he joined Colorado for Family Values after he grew worried about the expansion of civil rights laws to protect gays in Denver, Boulder, Aspen and elsewhere in the state. DTC Those laws barred discrimination in jobs, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation.

The laws have produced few complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Only 73 cases have been filed in Denver since 1991, for example. All but nine of them were dismissed, withdrawn or settled.

Why, then, does Mr. Perkins worry about such laws?

"It would be a club to get other things they want," he said of gay rights activists. "Like sex education in schools that says homosexuality is normal and healthy, legal homosexual marriages, redefining the family, a genderless society . . . an entirely different social structure than the nuclear family, which is the foundation of Western civilization."

Mr. Perkins says he does not hate homosexuals: "If somebody wants to practice homosexuality, that's their business," he said. But when they try to force acceptance on society, that's a different situation.

In other words, he explained, homosexuals who come out of the closet must accept the risks.

Officer Romero knows all about that.

Ms. Romero, 44, lived in fear that her secret would be discovered and her police career ruined. In 1987, she recalled, unmarked police cars began following her around. She said she was told that "damaging information" had been discovered and found herself downgraded from a school liaison unit to patrol duty.

"They wouldn't say what it was, but I realized what it was -- my sexual orientation," Officer Romero said. She went to an equal opportunity officer and acknowledged she was a lesbian. "He said I had no protection."

Jeopardizing her safety

Soon she wrote a letter complaining that her colleagues were jeopardizing her safety by refusing to help her on police calls.

"They sat me down and they said, 'Ange, we want you to get off the street for a time because we can't guarantee your safety.' I agreed to be taken off the street."

In 1990 the Denver City Council adopted a human rights #F ordinance that included a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation.

"That offers me some protection now," Ms. Romero said. "But what if the Supreme Court approves Amendment 2? Will they come after me because I'm a lesbian?"

The nation's highest court has not confronted a gay rights issue since 1986, when it ruled 5-4 that states may outlaw private homosexual acts between consenting adults. But since then, six of the justices involved in the case have been replaced and one member of the majority -- retired Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. -- acknowledged he had made a mistake and had voted for the wrong side.

If Amendment 2 is upheld, said Kevin Tebedo, executive director of Colorado for Family Values, groups already are waiting to campaign for similar constitutional amendments or state laws in Florida, Ohio, Texas, Montana, Nevada, Idaho, Missouri and Wyoming.

At bottom, the outcome of the court case may depend on how the justices perceive Amendment 2.

Does it, as its advocates say, merely deprive homosexuals of the power to seek "special rights" from state or local government?

Or does it, as its opponents argue, prevent homosexuals from getting "equal treatment?"

Lawyers for Officer Romero and her allies argue that Amendment 2 deprives homosexuals of any right to petition local governments for anti-bias laws.

But the state of Colorado says homosexuals have no legal right to seek "preferential treatment" and that voters or the Legislature are legally entitled to put certain subjects off limits. The state, describing homosexuals as financially successful and political potent, said voters had a right to use their limited resources to help more deserving groups.

The state said it had the right to pursue a uniform rule of law enforcement and to protect the freedom of property owners, employers and religious organizations not to hire or house homosexuals.

The equality argument of gay rights advocates leans heavily on a series of U.S. Supreme Court precedents beginning with Hunter vs. Erickson in 1969, a case filed by a black woman. The Supreme Court overturned a city charter amendment in Akron, Ohio, that repealed a fair housing ordinance and required voter approval before another could be enforced.

The amendment unconstitutionally placed a "special burden on racial minorities within the governmental process," the Supreme Court said.

Gay rights lawyers say that is precisely what Amendment 2 does to homosexual minorities. But Colorado underscored the fact that the Supreme Court has not extended its Hunter vs. Erickson reasoning beyond race.

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