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Petition drive set to begin against gay rights law

The Christian Coalition and its allies are set to begin a petition drive that would be the first step toward repealing a Miami-Dade County ordinance that bans discrimination against homosexuals.

The county attorney's office has approved the legality of the petition's language, which means the County Commission must give the coalition permission to collect signatures.

Permission could be granted next week. The coalition would then have 60 days to collect 32,500 signatures. If it succeeds, the measure could be on the ballot in September.

The group opposes a 1998 amendment to the county's civil rights law, making it illegal to discriminate in employment, housing and public accommodation based on sexual orientation. The commission adopted the amendment by a 7-6 vote.

County voters overturned a similar law in 1977 after former beauty queen Anita Bryant led a crusade against it.

"We have in the Constitution of the United States and the charter of Miami-Dade County, enough rules and regulations safeguarding the rights of every individual," said Eladio Armesto-Garcia, chairman of Take Back Miami-Dade, the group formed to lead the repeal drive. "We don't need to have special rights for any special groups."

Foes of the repeal drive say it will turn into a nasty political fight. "I think it is going to be extremely ugly," said Jorge Mursuli, chairman of SAVE Dade, which pushed for the amendment's passage.

Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas criticized the repeal effort.

"This is the wrong thing to do," Penelas said. "We need issues that will bring us together, not issues that will tear us apart."

_ Staff and wire reports