In a 3-2 vote before a tense and emotional crowd, the Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday rejected a proposed ordinance that would ban discrimination against AIDS victims, making Orange County the only urban area in California without such a measure.
The vote capped an 18-month study by the county's HIV Advisory Committee that concluded the ordinance was necessary to reduce the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome by making its victims more likely to seek treatment.
The measure, which would prohibit discrimination against people with AIDS in the areas of housing, employment or county services, was also endorsed by the county's health officer and the Health Care Agency. Supporters of the measure left the meeting disappointed.
"I think the pressure from the squeaky wheels overcame common sense and sanity," said Pearl Jemison-Smith, chairwoman of the advisory committee. "We are behind in Orange County. Here, AIDS is a four-letter word."
The opposition was led by Rev. Louis P. Sheldon's Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition, which mailed more than 1,000 letters to its members urging that they show up for Tuesday's meeting.
More than 150 people attended the session, including the vocal anti-homosexual Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton) and the acknowledged homosexual Laguna Beach Mayor Robert F. Gentry. The supervisors heard nearly three hours of sometimes sobbing and strident testimony from a total of 36 speakers--21 against the ordinance--before they voted as insiders had predicted on Monday.
"I support the fears and concerns of those opposed to the ordinance--it is a fear of the unknown," said Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder, who joined Supervisor Thomas F. Riley in supporting the measure. "(But) I'm concerned about the spread of the disease. I'm concerned about ignorance spreading the disease."
All three of the supervisors voting against the ordinance--Gaddi H. Vasquez, Don R. Roth and Roger R. Stanton--said they believe that existing state and federal laws already protect AIDS victims from discrimination.
"I have tasted discrimination, and it is a very bitter taste," Vasquez told the audience. "This is not a matter of whether you are for or against discrimination. I am concerned about the duplicity of laws."
Roth added: "My record is very clear as a public official--that is, I oppose discrimination. But in good conscience, I cannot give favor to one group over another."
Politically, it was a sensitive issue for a board that is composed of five conservative Republicans and almost always casts unanimous votes. Some supporters of the issue attributed the vote to the strength of right-wing politics in Orange County.
Riley said: "You and I both know . . . Orange County is certainly more conservative" than other urban counties. "I think being conservative, it's a little more difficult perhaps to (vote with) a more open . . . sense of responsibility."
Wieder said after the vote: "It's kind of unfortunate that Orange County has to always be the recalcitrant. It's only substantiating an image of Orange County that really has been changing.
"Urban Status, . . . Problems"
"I thought that we'd grown up, that we'd achieved urban status with urban problems and we'd recognize this thing (differently)."
Wieder, who recently announced her bid for reelection, said she hopes that her vote will not hurt her politically. "I would hope that my constituency would have faith in my integrity."
Dr. Don Hagan, a representative on the HIV Advisory Committee from the Orange County Medical Assn., said: "Two or three of the votes came out of fear of a very vocal religious minority. I think the vocal response from the religious right is very loud in Orange County."
Still, Hagan and Smith said that after 18 months of work, the advisory committee will not give up its goal of an anti-discrimination ordinance for people with AIDS. They said they will talk with the opposing supervisors about the possibility of supporting another version of the measure.
Possibility of New Vote
Vasquez seemed to leave open such a possibility when he said shortly before his vote that he cannot support the measure "in its present form." Vasquez was not specific about what changes he considers necessary. And afterward, he said that the possibility of changing his vote is "slight."
"I will be glad to listen to the committee without making any commitments," he said. "I don't think there is much difference in the concerns we all have about the AIDS crisis."
Specifically, the ordinance would have prohibited discrimination against people with AIDS or those "perceived" to carry the AIDS virus in the areas of housing, employment or county services.
The ordinance said that an employer may not fire or decline to hire a person because he or she has AIDS, that a landowner cannot terminate a housing agreement or change a property transaction because a person carries AIDS and that people with AIDS will have complete access to all public county services.