Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Helms Backs Anti-Gay Worker, Stalls Crop Insurance Measure Senator Wants USDA Employee Returned to His Former Position

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Helms Backs Anti-Gay Worker, Stalls Crop Insurance Measure Senator Wants USDA Employee Returned to His Former Position

Article excerpt

Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., is holding up reform of the nation's crop insurance and farm disaster programs to force the Department of Agriculture to return an employee opposed to homosexuality to his former job of equal opportunity employment manager.

For several weeks Helms has blocked Senate consideration of the Crop Insurance Reform Act, congressional staffers say. The bill is intended to stop fraud in farmers' claims for disaster relief and to encourage them to buy crop insurance instead.

Missouri has one of the lowest rates of participation in crop insurance, with many farmers instead relying on disaster aid during floods.

Republican and Democratic congressional staffers say Helms has blocked the crop reform bill because he wants a previously obscure employee of the Agriculture Department returned to his old job.

The employee, Karl Mertz, was an equal employment opportunity manager at a Department of Agriculture office in Athens, Ga.

Mertz, who has a doctorate in divinity, was interviewed for a television program in March. He criticized the department's attitude toward gays.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy last year ordered that gays be given the same employment protection as minorities and the disabled.

"We need to be moving toward Camelot, not Sodom and Gomorrah, and I'm afraid that's where our leadership is taking us," Mertz said. He has since said many gays are mentally ill and has likened homosexuality to alcoholism.

He gave the interview to a Louisiana television station as a private citizen on his own time, not as a government official.

Following the interview, Espy moved Mertz to another personnel job, where he would not be involved in equal opportunity work. Mertz suffered no cut in pay, seniority or benefits and was not transferred to another location.

Helms, who opposes equal employment rights for gays, took up Mertz's cause.

Senators have wide discretion in blocking legislation and appointments, a practice referred to as a "hold." Helms announced he would hold several low level appointments in the Agriculture Department until Mertz was reinstated.

"The department has a policy of nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation," Espy explained in a letter to Helms. …

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