When an Arlington firefighter, a custodian and a lift station operator decided to run as delegates to the state Democratic convention last year, they bumped into more politics than they bargained for.

The firefighter's name never made it onto the ballot. The custodian was elected as an alternate. The lift station operator won a delegate's seat at the convention. And they all faced the possibility of losing their jobs as Arlington County employes.

This year the custodian was asked to serve on the local Democratic Party's finance committee and the firefighter was asked to campaign for a House of Delegates candidate.

Again, it was a choice between working for the county or politicking.

This time the government workers filed suit against their boss -- Arlington County -- charging that a civil service rule barring them from participating in local and state political campaigns is unconstitutional.

"We are saying we want to play," said Arlington firefighter John McPherson, "and here's the county saying, 'No you can't play.' "

But McPherson and his colleagues say the issue goes beyond politics.

"All we are asking for is to have the same rights as all the other government employes in Virginia," said Raymond Sylvester Benton, a lift station operator who has worked for the county for 26 years.

Attorneys representing the employes say Arlington is the only jurisdiction in Virginia that strictly forbids employes from active participation in political campaigns.

It is a local version of the federal Hatch Act, which prohibits federal civil service employes from engaging in certain political activities. Arlington officials said the rule, part of the county's civil service code, was approved in 1951 to discourage politicalization of county jobs.

The suit was filed in Arlington Circuit Court last week by the three county employes, three employe groups and the director of an employe group active in politics. It seeks an order blocking enforcement of the 31-year-old civil service rule and charges that the rule violates workers' First Amendment rights to petition government and their 14th Amendment rights to equal protection under the law.

The suit also alleges that the county has overstepped its authority under the Virginia Constitution.

"The General Assembly has enacted no law authorizing the political subdivisions to regulate political activity by their employes which do not involve conflict of interest, dual office-holding or other incompatible activity," the suit states.

Arlington has imposed the toughest restrictions in the state, according to attorneys representing the employes.

The Arlington law, imposed under an earlier generation of county leaders, has been debated periodically by the County Board, but never has been substantially changed, according to a spokesman for the county attorney's office.

The Arlington County Board went into a closed-door session Saturday to debate whether to hire an outside attorney to handle the lawsuit.

The suit against the county was engineered partly by a politically active employe organization, the Virginia Public Employees, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

It was the state AFSCME council that began rounding up potential candidates to run for seats at the state Democratic Party Convention, said Robert A. Stewart, director of the council. Two Arlington employes already had been listed on the ballot when county officials warned them of the civil service rule, Stewart said.

The employes missed the deadline for pulling their names off the ballot. One received enough votes to be elected, and the other enough to be named an alternate. Both gave up their seats, however, bowing to the Arlington restrictions, court documents said.

The employes involved in the suit already are more politically active than many county workers. Cephas Newton Jr., a custodian at the Madison Recreation Center, is president of the Arlington local of AFSCME. McPherson, a firefighter who has worked for the county nine years, is president of the Arlington County Professional Firefighters Association. And Benton, the lift station operator, is president of the state AFSCME council headquartered in Annandale. All three employe groups have joined in the suit challenging the Arlington rule.

As a result of the state's failure to address the issue, counties and cities have adopted their own regulations with varying restrictions.

The Fairfax County School System imposes virtually no limitations on its employes. They can run for any office or participate in any campaign as long as it doesn't interfere with their jobs. For instance, James H. Dillard, a social studies teacher, takes a three-month leave of absence each year to serve as a Fairfax representative to the state House of Delegates. Dillard is continuing to teach while campaigning for reelection this fall.

Fairfax County personnel director Cornelius O'Kane said county workers are not prohibited from political activities and can run for elective office if certain procedures are followed, primarily to make sure that there are no conflicts with the worker's job or with state conflict of interest laws. He noted, however, that county ordinances do not address the question of whether a worker can keep his job if he wins an election. O'Kane said that to his knowledge only one county employe (he does not count school employes) had sought public office in recent years, and the worker, who ran for mayor in another state, lost the election.

In Alexandria, workers who seek public office in the city must take a leave of absence from their jobs. But if a worker wants to run for office in another community, the city has no problems.

"Anything outside the jurisdiction Alexandria is none of our business," city personnel director Robert Burnett said. "Employes can participate in any campaign as long as they identify themselves as private citizens and not as officers of the city. Other than that we expect them to exercise their privileges of First Amendment Rights."