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ELECTIONS '94 : Gay Rights Foes Take to Ballot Again : Election: Despite losing in '92, an Oregon group is backing a revised measure to ban laws protecting homosexuals. Idaho has a version too.

November 07, 1994|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forgive the Oregon voter who may be a tad confused about what year this is.

Just as in the fall of 1992, radio and television advertisements boom warnings about gay propaganda infiltrating the schools, of taxpayers being forced to subsidize the promotion of homosexuality. Warnings of censorship and state-sanctioned discrimination boom back.

The Oregon Citizens Alliance, author of a failed 1992 anti-gay-rights initiative that riveted the state, is on the ballot again with a revised version. The arguments are much the same this time, although some of the fizz has gone out of the fight. Not only is it Round 2, but there are a number of other controversial initiatives grabbing the media's attention this year.

"I'd definitely say the decibel level is a hell of a lot lower," said Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts, who predicts that this fall's toned-down measure will garner more votes than its predecessor and even has a chance of passing.

Along with a similar proposal in Idaho, the Oregon initiative is one of two anti-gay-rights measures on state ballots this week, far fewer than conservative activists had hoped for but testament nonetheless to their determination to keep the issue alive.

Initiative proponents in both states are trailing in the polls and lagging behind in financial donations and political endorsements. Even if the measures pass, they will surely wind up in court. A milder anti-gay-rights referendum approved by Colorado voters in 1992 was recently declared unconstitutional by that state's Supreme Court. And in a formal opinion, the Idaho attorney general has said his state's ballot proposal is also unconstitutional.

None of that seems to faze initiative backers, who insist they have their fingers on the public pulse. "I anticipate this thing passing by 56% to 60%," said Dennis Mansfield, one of the drafters of Idaho's Proposition 1 and executive director of Idaho Family Forum, associated with the national conservative group Focus on the Family.

Certainly the history of the Colorado initiative gives him hope. Behind in the polls and endorsements before the '92 election, the referendum won anyway.

Moreover, Hibbitts does not think the Colorado court ruling will influence voters. "It's an emotional vote, not a vote based on what a judge says one way or the other," he said.

The Oregon and Idaho proposals have virtually identical goals--not surprisingly, since the Idaho Citizens Alliance, the principal sponsor of that state's measure, is an offshoot of the Oregon group.

Both initiatives would prevent state and local government from adopting laws protecting gay men and lesbians from discrimination or recognizing same-sex partnerships. The measures would further forbid the spending of public money in any way that implies approval of homosexuality or its sympathetic treatment in public schools.

"The whole key is that there will not be . . . the endorsement of it as an acceptable lifestyle," Mansfield said.

In an effort to make this year's measure more palatable to Oregon voters, the OCA dropped the charged language of the 1992 proposal, which lumped homosexuality with sadism and pedophilia and condemned it as "abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse."

The group also has included wording intended to counter some of the more effective opposition arguments used two years ago--that the constitutional amendment would bar the government licensing of gay professionals and rid public library shelves of literary classics that contain even a hint of homosexuality.

But opponents argue that Measure 13, as it is known, is the same old thing wrapped in a prettier package. "It's legal discrimination," said Dennis Brodigan of the No on 13 campaign. "It's legal censorship. It curtails curriculum that can be taught."

In both states, the opposition campaigns are hitting pragmatic themes. So completely do their advertisements sidestep discussions of homosexuality that it is often hard to figure out that the initiatives have anything to do with gay men and lesbians.

Idaho's No on 1 Coalition warns that the proposed measure "dictates interference in the lives of all Idahoans" and will cost taxpayers millions of dollars to implement and defend in court.

Given the conservative reputation of the state, the coalition has amassed an impressive array of allies, ranging from the governor to the Catholic bishop of Boise. "Many of the conservatives in this state are fiscal, economic conservatives and not social morality conservatives," said Don Crowley, chairman of the University of Idaho's political science department.

With the help of out-of-state contributions, the No on 1 group raised $500,000, according to campaign manager Diane Sands. The coalition's media advertising expenditures of $250,000 overshadows the $20,000 spent on television by initiative supporters.

Still, Mansfield says, the pro-Proposition 1 group is getting plenty out of its limited TV time. "I'm sure it knocks a couple of potato farmers off their sofas," he said.

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