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Anti-gay measure ordered off ballot

An effort to ban gay rights laws in Florida suffered a major setback Thursday when the Florida Supreme Court said a proposed constitutional amendment is too flawed to appear on November's ballot.

The ruling won't end the ideological battles over gay rights laws. Efforts to exclude gays from anti-discrimination laws are under way in seven states, and proponents of the Florida measure say they will continue challenging local ordinances.

But opponents of the proposals called the ruling a great victory with national impact, despite the decision's technical nature.

"It is the first time in the latest wave of anti-gay and anti-democratic initiatives that a state court has struck a measure from the ballot," said Suzanne B. Goldberg, a New York attorney for the Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund.

Todd Simmons, co-chair of the Human Rights Task Force, said: "It's a big win. We'll be spared a bitter, divisive, extremely damaging initiative fight next fall."

Other opponents of the proposed amendment held a news conference in Tallahassee on Thursday to praise the court's ruling.

"Today's ruling drives a stake through the heart of the American Family Association's efforts to divide the people of Florida through its self-serving agenda of hatred and discrimination," said Jeff Peters, chairman of Floridians Respect Everyone's Equality, or FREE.

But AFA leader David Caton, of Tampa, vowed to fight on.

"In the end the law will not allow a politically appointed Supreme Court to get in the way of the rights of voters," Caton said in a prepared statement.

AFA gathered about 90,000 of 430,000 signatures needed to get the amendment on November's ballot. When a voter initiative gets 10 percent of the needed signatures, the Supreme Court checks to see if the proposed amendment meets legal requirements.

Caton called the ruling "frivolous" and "a radical departure from established law," but conceded that it effectively ends efforts to address the gay rights issue on a statewide basis.

Despite the rejoicing by civil libertarians and Caton's accusation of liberal political bias by the court, the ruling Thursday hinged solely on technicalities.

Any proposed amendments to Florida's constitution must deal with a single subject and be clearly summarized for voters on the ballot.

By a 6-0 vote, the court found that the AFA proposal failed both tests. Chief Justice Rosemary Barkett did not vote because her law clerk is related to an attorney who argued against the initiative.

The amendment would have prohibited the state or any local governments from passing anti-discrimination laws unless those laws dealt with one of 10 listed categories: race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, handicap, ethnic background, marital status or familial status. Extra language clearly exempted gays from any definitions of sex or familial status.

"The voter is essentially being asked to give one "yes' or "no' answer to a proposal that actually asks 10 questions," wrote Justice Parker McDonald.

Although the proposal seems to deal with a single subject, discrimination, such an amendment would have a "domino effect" on many other aspects of government and law, according to the opinion.

Among the unintended effects, the amendment could strike down hiring preferences for veterans, school programs for gifted students, collective bargaining by union members and a variety of other laws.

The amendment, the court found, would restrict local governments from enacting future laws protecting groups from discrimination unless the law turned on one of the 10 characteristics listed in the amendment.

And the clear intent of the amendment, to limit protections for gays, is not mentioned in the summary, the court said, which makes the ballot item misleading.

Caton, meanwhile, said his group will refocus its efforts on the local level.

Hillsborough, Alachua, Palm Beach and Monroe counties and the cities of Key West, Miami Beach and Tampa already have laws assuring gays the same protections as other groups.

The AFA successfully petitioned for a repeal referendum of the Tampa law, and voters rejected it amid a heated, confusing campaign in 1992. But the Supreme Court later ruled that AFA had relied on some invalid voter signatures to get the issue on the ballot, and the law was reinstated.

_ Information from Times staff writer John Cutter and the Associated Press was used in this report.