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.