AS HE LOOKS OUT over the 2,300 plastic and chrome chairs arranged in Phoenix Civic Plaza, the Reverend Leo Godzich's face betrays only the blank alertness of a point guard studying the court. Tonight the city's Human Relations Commission will be holding a public hearing on whether the Phoenix antidiscrimination ordinance should extend protection to gays and lesbians. Specifically, the amendment to be debated on the evening of March 26 would forbid employers and those who run public establishments to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation." In other words, it would make it illegal to deny someone a job or a seat in a restaurant because of his or her choice of bedmates.

Godzich is one of the architects of the opposition, and as he takes his seat in the front row, perhaps 20 feet from the long dais where members of the commission will sit, he seems as imperturbable as Henry V at Agincourt. Ironically, tomorrow's headline in the Arizona Republic will read, Hundreds urge Phoenix to ban bias against gays," and the story will report that supporters of the amendment outnumbered those against it by more than 2-to-1." Those figures, however, are hard to reconcile with the picture drawn from where Godzich is sitting.

From down front, it looks like a wash, with perhaps a slight numerical edge going to the pro-amendment forces. Whatever the numbers, it's not so hard to tell who's who: At the door tonight, B.J. Bud, a self-described short, left-handed, Jewish, homosexual woman," is handing out little tacky-backed rectangular nametags, with the word hate" prominently circled and slashed. Most of the pro" people are wearing them; none of Godzich's anti" people are.

Not wearing Bud's badges, the anti" forces have established a beachhead front and center, in the middle of three ranks of chairs. In his charcoal-color suit, Godzich anchors the southern pole of the first row, and his flock brings up the rear. They got here first, in their work clothes and tee shirts. Taking the best seats, they will not be moved.

Now the pro-amendment forces, gay men and women, their friends, parents and legal allies, begin to find their seats. These folks are more languorous, and they spread like mercury around the hard Christian rock, leaching into crevices in their lawyerly suits and chambray shirts, their starched jeans and Top-Siders, until about half of the allotted seats have been occupied.

Tonight's meeting has been moved to Civic Plaza because the Phoenix City Council chambers were adjudged too small to contain the crowd. There was reportedly some concern for security, that the friction between the two groups might erupt into something ugly and uncivil, but the police presence seems light and all uniformed officers remain outside the meeting room.

Indeed, as about half the chairs fill up, various subfactions coalesce and pockets of intolerance form. A palpable charge of dread and anticipation limns the crowd. Here and there one can overhear the exaggerated lisps and perfunctory snipes of private conversations.

Any minute now they're going to start passing out condoms and singing `Bringing in the Sheets,'" someone whispers to his neighbor as a trio of meticulous young men passes. Elsewhere, those without the politically correct nametags are met with simmering, accusatory looks from the pro-amendment crowd.

In the half-hour before the hearing gets under way, young men, women and couples stop by for brief words with Godzich. Fred Deiderly, a chiropractor of middle years in shirt sleeves and a tie, slips his arm around the pastor and whispers something in his ear. Nods are exchanged, plans set in motion. A tidy woman who looks like a starlet frumped up to play a librarian checks in with Godzich and then begins to hand out sheets of paper to various members of the God-fearing lobby. Some of these pages bear the letterhead of Kids First, an organization chaired by Godzich that is most notable for its opposition to hate-crime legislation and AIDS education in schools.

Many of these statements are designed to address the putative economic and legal ramifications of the ordinance, and after a while they begin to sound the same: Love the sinner, hate the sin and for sure don't give gays and lesbians the same protected class status society has attached to other minorities.

To ban discrimination against gays, the speakers argue, is to sanction discrimination against Christians. These people believe gays and lesbians don't deserve enhanced protection against bigotry because homosexuality is not an innate characteristic like skin color, or a constitutionally protected lifestyle choice like religion. Rather it is a symptom of bad character, a self-destructive vice like smoking or perhaps a disease like alcoholism, with its roots in moral degradation.

Not everyone opposed to the amendment is reading or paraphrasing a ready-made statement. Some are crafting their own. A few rows behind where Godzich is sitting, a nervously genial, generously proportioned woman named Donna is wearing a Minnie Mouse tee shirt.

She is bent nearly double as she works a ball-point pen across a thin sheaf of papers balanced in her lap. She is crafting her own speech, pulling her pen along in a frank cursive hand that drifts upward at the end of each line. Her thick glasses hover about six inches above the page as she scrawls:

I don't hate anyone what I hate is sin Homosexuality is a sin the penalty for sin is death...Homosexuality is a choice your not born with it."

Though Donna's particular viewpoint-that homosexuality is a mutable, immoral choice-has been de-emphasized and even discredited by politicians and the press, most of the people who will speak against the amendment tonight agree with her moral indignation. A few of them find homosexuals disgusting and monstrous, and some will even say so, but most of the opposition appears to be decent-enough folks who simply see no reason homosexuals deserve enhanced legal protection. Godzich and other pragmatic leaders of the anti-amendment forces frankly don't mind if their theological themes are downplayed so long as their side wins. Their strategy is to show the Phoenix City Council a core of committed citizens opposed to the amendment on moral grounds, and then offer secular, conservative rationale for not extending protection to gays.

In a January interview with New Times, even the Reverend Andy Cosentino, one of the more strident of the March 26 speakers-and a man from whom some of the other leaders of the right feel the need to distance themselves-said he'd prefer the amendment be rejected on constitutional grounds" rather than by religious argument. And Frank Meliti, who represents a coalition of 39 patriotic organizations" and can quote scripture with anyone," agrees that it's best not to play the God trump too heavily. He agrees that Bible-believing faith is great for turning out the numbers, but he's savvy enough not to believe that the city council will do anything but the politically expedient thing.

Political power, not righteousness, will win this debate, but what motivates these people to turn out for a public hearing is their personal sense of right and wrong.

For some the proposed amendment appears toothless. Its supporters say it is largely a symbolic gesture, and they point out that it does not authorize private rights of action against would-be employers or require affirmative action. They claim, therefore, that any economic arguments against it are spurious. Employers would not have to spend a dime to bring their businesses into compliance. And they say because it extends protection on the basis of sexual orientation" rather than homosexuality" it does not conflict with the state's sodomy laws.

But because people on both sides are vigorously asserting their opinions, what could have been a warm, fuzzy act of symbolism has become a difficult issue for the Phoenix City Council-and one some councilmembers wish they could sidestep.

To that end, five councilmembers and Mayor Paul Johnson have staked out a middle ground on a question that would seem to have no center: They support equal rights for gays on principle, and last December passed a compromise version of the amendment that banned discrimination against gays in city hiring. But Johnson and a majority of councilmembers say there is a need to balance that principle against the dangers of government growth in lean economic times. They say they fear the proposed amendment would negatively impact business.

Pro-amendment supporters see it another way: They say that, for Mayor Johnson and his council majority, civil liberties are fine so long as they don't screw with economic development.

I think the question is what is the appropriate role for government," Johnson says. That's what we're trying to figure out. We've already passed an ordinance that says that the city shouldn't discriminate in hiring, [and] we've already passed an ordinance that says we shouldn't discriminate in service delivery. We also changed some rules as to how we deal with people of different orientations."

Through Arizona's sodomy laws, Johnson notes, the state has determined homosexuality should be an act of illegality."

At our level, what we've said is that you ought to address the crime and not the individual," he says. The next step is one I think we just have to continue to review. Those other measures we're not backing off of." ²But listening to the opponents of the amendment, it becomes clear that this is not really a discussion about business, economic growth and the vagaries of government intrusion. This is about whether gay people are sick, perverted and an abomination before the Lord.

On this issue of principle, the amendment's opponents trust Mayor Johnson and the council to gauge the prevailing political winds and act accordingly. While the city's gay community may be well-organized, it is a small bloc that can be overwhelmed if Pastor Godzich and other leaders mobilize their Moral Majoritarians.

And despite the Arizona Republic's 2-to-1" estimate, at least seven more people will speak against the amendment than will speak in its favor. The hearing is devised so pros and cons alternate three-minute statements, sometimes bristling past each other with barely concealed contempt. Both sides are capable of rudeness to opposing speakers, despite the admonishments of long-suffering Bruce Hamilton. When amendment advocates speak, the Reverend Cosentino fits his camcorder to his eye and films them, a tactic that disconcerts and eventually dissuades some of the signed-up from following through.

But despite the tension, there are moments of gentleness, too. Occasionally Godzich will raise himself up and forward to gooseneck the microphone into position for audio-challenged speakers.

Almost every speaker who opposed the amendment took swipes at the putative immorality of the homosexual lifestyle:

The homosexual wants to force others to accept his lifestyle, even when those others have opposing convictions," says Lesley Oxley, the first citizen to speak. The average homosexual is a health risk and an inappropriate role model for young children in the eyes of many," Cathi Herrod, the Arizona director of a group called Concerned Women for America, adds a few moments later. I would personally and literally be burning in Hell right now...my sins would have sent me to Hell as sure as your sins of homosexuality and lesbianism will do to you if you don't repent," the Reverend Cosentino piles on later.

Heidi Robinson calls homosexuality a metaphysical negation of life," and Wayne Santore claims he was in bondage for 35 years with transsexualism," but that with God on our side we can still win that victory over Satan on transsexualism and homosexuality." David Bradshaw, who introduces himself as the host of a national talk program called World View Perspective," says it is a known fact that oftentimes body fluids find their way into the food we eat at restaurants" and that hiring gays in restaurants would exacerbate the AIDS epidemic.

Perhaps David Jones, standing in his Airborne Express uniform, replete with epaulets, puts it plainest: I do believe it is a moral issue. I mean, there's no way of saying it's not...I don't want to say homosexuals are child molesters, but some of these, that's their sexual preference; they say, `Well, that's what I like.'"

Just before midnight, grandfather Tony Bogard issues the council a stern warning: My Bible, the King James Version, says if a man was found laying with another man, they both have to be taken outside the city walls and stoned to death. Remember this, city council." ²Dale Russell, one of the final voices of the night, is a young man who scrapes seven feet but seems crippled by shyness. Still, he speaks directly: ÔIt's wrong, homosexual is wrong, it's wrong, it's wrong. ... "

Godzich nods at some of the statements, but most of the time he listens impassively.

But he also delivers his own statement tonight.
In fact, he abandons" his prepared text to deliver a fiery critique of a political body that cares so little about its people that it would actually provide incentives for them to engage in soul-murdering sin. Like Donna, the woman in the Minnie Mouse tee shirt who believes the punishment for sin is death, Godzich says he doesn't hate homosexuals.


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Philip Martin