Love & War with Colorado in Court, the Next Battleground over Protection for Gays against Discrimination May Well Be Missouri

Article excerpt

FROM ITS CONSERVATIVE Ozark hills to its liberal inner cities, Missouri may emerge as this year's central battleground in the cultural war between anti-gay rights groups and homosexual-rights advocates.

The issue: Should gays and lesbians be among the groups protected against discrimination?

Groups that say no are circulating an initiative petition for a proposed Missouri constitutional amendment that would ban all state and local gay-rights laws, and rescind current ordinances in St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia that protect gays from discrimination.

Gay-rights groups - contending that fundamental civil rights are at stake - are assembling a diverse coalition to fight the right wing. And national leaders on both sides of the issue describe Missouri as a keystone of the nine states where anti-gay initiatives are pending.

"Missouri is a bellwether state, " said Gregory King, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a gay-rights political group based in Washington. "We're going to work hard to defeat this effort."

Meanwhile, the leaders of two national anti-gay rights groups say they think Missouri offers the best chance of getting an anti-gay amendment passed - and upheld later by state courts. Courts in Colorado have so far blocked a similar statewide amendment passed there in 1992.

"Missouri is a perfect fit for us," said the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman and founder of the gay-bashing Traditional Values Coalition, based in Anaheim, Cal.

As evidence, Sheldon points to Springfield, where voters in February rejected - by a 71 percent to 29 percent margin - the city's bias-crime ordinance, which made it a crime to assault others or damage property due to the victim's race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. The repeal effort keyed on the inclusion of homosexuals.

Sheldon said, "if we can get this new constitutional amendment on the ballot, we think we have a better chance to win in Missouri than anywhere else."

To get its amendment on the November ballot, Missouri's anti-gay group - called the Amendment Coalition - must collect about 130,000 valid signatures of registered voters on an initiative petition by July 8.

Paul R. Summers Sr., a businessman from Springfield who leads Amendment Coalition, said his group's goal is to get 200,000 signatures at church gatherings, country auctions, union meetings and neighborhoods across the state. "I think we can do it," he said.

Meanwhile, gay-rights groups - led by Missouri's Show Me Equality group - are putting together a broad-based coalition of Missourians who oppose the amendment.

Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., and former Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton, a Democrat, are among the prominent Missourians who have publicly opposed the initiative petition so far. In addition, several church and civil-rights groups in the state have formed Missourians for Freedom and Justice, which is opposing the petition drive.

Leah Edelman, a leader of the Show Me Equality group who directs the St. Louis-based Privacy Rights Education Project, said Missouri "is particularly significant from a national perspective. It's a bellwether state, a rather big state with a diverse population."

***** Artillery From National Groups

Both sides say they are running "home-grown" campaigns financed by local donations. But both are getting help from national organizations: Some examples:

- Sheldon, head of the Traditional Values group, traveled to Springfield three times earlier this year to support the anti-gay vote there. …