ASHLAND, ORE. — THE gay-rights movement in the United States is on a political roll.
* Voter initiatives on forbidding civil rights protection for homosexuals failed to make the November ballot in eight of 10 targeted states. But Oregon and Idaho will have such votes.
* Organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign Fund and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force now have tens of thousand of contributors and multimillion dollar budgets to promote their cause. Much of this effort will fight anti-gay state initiatives.
* The number of cities and counties with gay-rights ordinances has risen to 130. Eight states now ban discrimination against homosexuals (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, Wisconsin, plus the District of Columbia), and another 11 states have executive orders prohibiting discrimination against gay public employees.
* Federal legislation that would prohibit job discrimination based on sexual orientation now has 155 cosponsors in the House and Senate, as well as a friendly administration in the White House. The bills have broad business and labor support, as well as the public backing of such diverse figures as Coretta Scott King and Barry Goldwater.
Recent public opinion polls indicate Americans are becoming more tolerant of homosexuality. A Time magazine/CNN poll in June showed acceptance of the gay lifestyle by a 52-39 percent margin, a reversal of the figures from 1976. This survey indicates a certain ambivalence, however. A majority still disapprove of official recognition of same-sex marriages, say homosexuals are not good role models, and do not approve of the adoption of children by gay couples.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts is chief sponsor of the ``Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 1994,'' which declares that ``an individual's sexual orientation bears no relationship to the individual's ability to contribute fully to the economic and civic life of society.''
Mr. Kennedy describes this as ``simple justice for gay men and lesbians.'' But he also is quick to note that the bill is ``narrowly drafted ... in an effort to avoid needless controversy.'' Specifically, the bill (and a companion measure in the House) prohibits quotas, exempts churches and church-run schools, does not include job benefits for ``domestic partners,'' and does not apply to the armed services.
Conservative opponents say such legislation still forces employers to act against their consciences. ``The bill essentially takes away the rights of employers to decline to hire or promote someone who openly acknowledges indulging in behavior that the employer or his customers find immoral, unhealthy, and destructive to individuals, families, and societies,'' Robert Knight of the Washington-based Family Research Council recently told the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, which Kennedy chairs. Mr. Knight also noted that the religious exemption does not apply to for-profit businesses run by churches (such as book stores).
Joseph Broadus, a professor of law at George Mason University in Virginia, points to surveys indicating homosexuals have above-average levels of education and income, and he argues the bill would ``result in special privileges for an elite group.''
``It has nothing to do with social and economic participation,'' professor Broadus testified before the Kennedy committee. ``It is rather an effort to reject legislatively an older order of religiously based sexual regulation and to brand adherents of the old morality bigots.''
Voters have approved anti-gay rights measures in a number of places around the country, including 23 mostly rural communities in Oregon. Colorado has the only statewide anti-gay measure, but that was declared unconstitutional by the state supreme court and is under appeal. Efforts to promote Colorado-like measures in several states, including Michigan and Arizona, were withdrawn when legal questions arose. In Washington, Maine, Nevada, and Missouri, backers failed to obtain the required number of signatures to get measures on the ballot.
In July, the American Family Association of Florida acknowledged the difficulty of winning support for a statewide measure and said it would focus on local initiatives. And here in Oregon, the force of the local ordinances is in question due to recent state legislation.
These apparent setbacks for those working to block ``special rights'' for homosexuals have not caused the gay-rights movement to lessen its efforts. Activists are pushing ahead in anticipation of more political battles over public opinion.
``The effort by the Radical Right presents us with a range of opportunities to organize that may never be presented again,'' states a Human Rights Campaign Fund document that also describes plans to solicit donations from all previous donors. The organization also plans to target political campaigns in the ``strategic states'' of Arizona, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Virginia.