Despite protests from a group of "pro-family" activists, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors gave preliminary approval to a law prohibiting discrimination against residents with AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses.
During an emotionally charged meeting, several speakers urged the supervisors to reconsider the ordinance, saying it would "open the floodgates," drawing people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome to Ventura County.
The supervisors voted 3 to 2 for the anti-discrimination ordinance, with Supervisors Vicky Howard and Maria VanderKolk opposed. The two supervisors said they support the idea behind the law but that the ordinance leaves many questions unanswered.
"I'm just concerned that we haven't looked at the ramifications," Howard said.
Supervisors John K. Flynn, Maggie Erickson Kildee and Susan Lacey voted to adopt the ordinance, saying it has been thoroughly reviewed.
Howard said she was concerned about how the law would be applied in certain circumstances, for example to a small company that loses its health insurance because it employs a person with AIDS.
Erickson Kildee, however, said health insurance policies are required to cover employees stricken after the employee is hired.
"It seems to me that that question, in my mind, has been answered," she said, adding that the supervisors would send the wrong message by delaying the ordinance.
VanderKolk said the ordinance should not be approved until all questions have been addressed, including those raised by Howard.
The supervisors will give the ordinance final consideration July 30.
The ordinance, which was proposed by the county's AIDS Advisory Committee, would protect the housing and employment rights of people with AIDS or the HIV virus and other communicable and life-threatening illnesses.
There have been 227 reported cases of AIDS in the county, health officials say, with 158 deaths reported as of mid-June. Officials also estimate that as many as 2,000 people in the county might be infected with the HIV virus.
The law would also make it illegal for businesses to deny services to residents and would protect their rights to county services and educational programs.
Several other counties and cities in the state have adopted similar ordinances, including the city of Los Angeles and San Diego County, said county Medical Director Lawrence E. Dodds, co-chairman of the AIDS Advisory Committee.
The California Fair Employment and Housing Act also prohibits discrimination against people with AIDS or those with the HIV virus.
But Dodds said the county's ordinance would extend that protection to people with other communicable diseases such as chronic hepatitis B, and life-threatening diseases such as cancer.
Unlike the anti-discrimination law in the city of Los Angeles, which requires the city attorney to sue businesses and individuals who discriminate against AIDS victims, the Ventura County ordinance would only give county residents who believe that they have been discriminated against a basis for filing a civil lawsuit.
The law would apply only to the about 87,000 people who live in the unincorporated area of the county.
Several residents who spoke Tuesday urged the supervisors to take more time to study the anti-discrimination law before adopting it.
"If you do pass the ordinance, it will draw other people into the county that are HIV-infected, and it's going to cause a problem," said Clara Davis, a spokeswoman for the American Family Assn. of Ventura County, which she said has about 700 members.
In an interview after the meeting, Davis said she opposes the ordinance because it sends a message to the public that the county condones homosexuality.
"This is not a civil-rights issue, it is a moral issue," she said.
Oxnard resident Linda Vahl, who described herself as a "pro-family activist," said adoption of the anti-discrimination law would "open the floodgates to more than we can imagine."
She said she opposed the ordinance because it would, in essence, give homosexuals the same civil rights as minorities.
"If we do adopt this anti-discrimination law, people will be moving to our wonderful county," she said.
Diane Seyle, the county's AIDS coordinator, said in an interview that such fears are unfounded. She said that many residents expressed the same concern two years ago when the county began to operate a clinic for AIDS victims at the Ventura County Medical Center. Most of the patients served at the clinic are longtime county residents, she said.
Another speaker, Pauline Warren of Oxnard, said the ordinance fails to give information about whether AIDS discrimination is widespread in the county.
Marie Cain, a senior consultant for the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, told The Times that there have been three documented cases of AIDS discrimination in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties since 1987.
In all three cases, the complaints were settled out of court, she said.
County Medical Director Dodds, however, said after the meeting that discrimination against AIDS victims is common in Ventura County.
He said the AIDS Advisory Committee includes many health-care and social-services workers who deal with AIDS victims on a regular basis. Several AIDS victims have told committee members that they have been thrown out of hotels and apartments because of their affliction, he said.
"We didn't keep exact numbers, but we know that it's going on," Dodds said.