West Palm Beach Votes To Retain Gay-Rights Law -- Repeal Effort Divided Clergy, Politicians

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Human-rights activists were relieved yesterday after voters in West Palm Beach agreed to keep on the books a recently passed ordinance that protects gay men and lesbians from discrimination.

With 22 percent of the city's 30,885 voters turning out for the special election, the ordinance was retained, 56 percent to 46 percent.

"We're ecstatic," said Richard Giorgio, a consultant for the campaign to save the ordinance.

Gay-rights opponents blamed a confusing ballot for their loss. "It was very poorly written," said Bob Proper of the Christian Coalition. "It was a matter of `yes' means `no' and `no' means `yes.' "

The effort by groups such as the Christian Coalition and the American Family Association to repeal the law sparked a sometimes ugly campaign.

It also pitted clergy in the city against one another and marked a deep division on the city commission between West Palm Beach Mayor Nancy Graham, who supports the gay-rights law, and commissioner Sara Nuckles, who opposes it.

"It's clear the campaign was able to make the case to voters about what was at stake in the election," said Susan Glickman, Florida director for People for the American Way. "The voters don't think people should be denied the basic necessities of life because of discrimination."

The ordinance that was up for repeal prohibits discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations to anyone based on race, color, religion or sexual orientation. It was the last phrase that opponents wanted to strike.

David Caton, president of the Florida chapter of the American Family Association, said the results only proved the issue needs to get another airing at the ballot box.

"If the repeal referendum occurred during a regular election, it would have been different," Caton said. "This special election did not capture mainstream America."