Earlier this summer, a man was nearly beaten to death on the beach at East Hampton, N.Y. He was attacked at night, bashed with a baseball bat, rushed first to Southampton Hospital and then later transferred to one in New York City where he remains, the police said, in serious condition. Two youths were arrested for the assault and although neither one has issued any kind of statement, the police think they know the reason for the beating. The kids were out to beat up gays.

It is a long way from East Hampton to the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., but there is, I promise, a link. The church is a gigantic enterprise run by Jerry Falwell, head of the Moral Majority. One of the church's programs is called the Soul-Winning Ministry. Its director is the Rev. J.O. Grooms.

On July 12, WABS in Arlington aired a Falwell sermon in which he mentioned both gays and Nazis, as well as some other groups. This prompted Frank Kameny, a well-known Washington gay activist, to protest. His letter was answered by Grooms, who assured Kameny that even though Falwell mentioned both gays and Nazis in his sermon, he was not making a comparison. Gays, in fact, were worse than Nazis.

"I am sure the majority of the decent, respectable people in this country would rather be a Nazi than a homosexual," Grooms wrote. The good minister also informed Kameny that even though he chose to call homosexuals gay, the Scriptures had another word for them -- "perverts." He then cited the Bible: "King Asa is referred to in the Scriptures as a good king that did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord. The very next statement, 'And he took away the Sodomites out of the land.' (I Kings 15:11-12). This by no means implies that he removed them to another country. It means that he killed them."

Now Grooms is not Falwell and in fact Falwell through a spokesman repudiated the letter and said Grooms had been admonished. The Moral Majority went out of its way to say that not only isn't Grooms associated with it (merely with Falwell's church), but that his letter does not represent its position. The Moral Majority, the spokesman said, "does not believe in capital punishment for homosexuality."

But poor Grooms must be excused for misrepresenting Falwell and even for doing it on his letterhead. Falwell, after all, is a regular Anita Byrant on the subject of homosexuality. In mailings and broadcasts, he appeals to the basest sort of antihomosexual sentiment, couching his demagoguery always in religious terms, raising the specter of "avowed homosexual" teachers seducing school children. Always his justifications for what amounts to plain old fag baiting are either the scriptures or his absolute certainty that God, like him, is, in effect, a bigot.

But religious beliefs, no matter how sincere, are no justification for hate, vilification and bigotry. If that were the case, the Ayatollah would be an admirable figure. And as long as Grooms thinks Nazis are better than gays, it should be pointed out that they not only shared his beliefs about homosexuals and like the King Asa murdered them, they were also sincere in their beliefs.

Falwell may think that there is a world of difference between him and Grooms on the homosexuality issue, but in fact the two of them are closer than he might think. Grooms apparently thinks gays are some sort of sub-humans who should be done away with. Falwell holds no such view, but he does more than simply denounce homosexuality as a sin. He also portrays gays as monsters who are barely in control of their sexual urges. This is why he harps on the bogeyman of the gay teacher, forgetting or ignoring that it is one thing to be gay, quite another to be a child molester. The same holds for heterosexuals, among whom child molesting is not unknown.

In the end, both Grooms in a clumsy way and Falwell in a more polished way dehumanize gay people. This, as the Nazis appreciated, provides social and religious encouragement for violence. Falwell is either being foolish or disingenuous if he thinks that he can, with surgical precision, tailor his demagoguery so that homosexuals will be ostracized and scorned--but not beaten up. Some people just don't get those distinctions. Grooms didn't. And neither did the guys who almost killed that man in East Hampton.