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
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
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
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
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. …