Mark Stakes waited until the interviewer had praised his portfolio of drawings and his qualifications as a draftsman before he brought up his history of mental illness.

He says now he has no doubt he spoke too soon. That interview produced the same results as about two dozen others in which he spoke candidly of his hospitalizations for schizophrenia and the monthly injections he takes to control it: no job, no explanation, just a post card informing him someone else had been hired.

"I was completely qualified for the job, I felt and I think he did, too, before I told him," said Stakes. "They just don't want to take a chance that I won't be able to do the work."

The post cards and comments from would-be employers -- including one who referred to him as "the two of you" -- are among the reasons that Stakes, a Virginia Beach graphics consultant, is anxious to see protections for the mentally ill enacted into state law.

A bill that would establish rights for the handicapped in Virginia, including the mentally ill, suffered a setback last week.

After heavy lobbying by business groups such as the Virginia Retail Merchants Association, the state Senate struck language covering the mentally ill from House Bill 817. The action, said Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), was the equivalent of hitting the measure "in the knees with a baseball bat."

Endorsed by the administration of Gov. Charles S. Robb, the bill would prohibit discrimination against the handicapped and empower a state office to mediate and litigate complaints on behalf of the handicapped.

The bill's supporters now face the formidable task of restoring the protections for the mentally ill in a House-Senate conference in a way that the Senate will accept when the measure returns to the chamber for final approval.

For both sides, it has been a bruising and vociferous tug of war. Supporters of the bill, some of whom lobby from the confines of wheelchairs, portray themselves as up against a backward business lobby so strong that not even the efforts of Robb can quell it.

Carolyn Hodgins, head of the state advocacy office for the disabled, said opponents are letting loose with the kind of rhetoric "that really sets your teeth on edge." She quoted Sumpter Priddy, president of the retail merchants, as saying during a legislative hearing that employers "don't want people as nutty as fruitcakes working for them" -- a comment Priddy said he doesn't recall and doesn't think he made.

Opponents complain they've been publicly labeled as bigots for any argument against the bill, no matter how reasonable. "It's gotten extremely emotional," Hodgins agreed.

The debate revolves around the question of how a person with a history of mental illness or a person whose mental illness is controlled by drugs or treatment could be expected to perform on the job.

Proponents say the mentally ill deserve a guarantee that an employer could not discriminate against them if their mental illness is unrelated to their ability to work and requires only a moderate degree of "accommodation."

Opponents such as Z.C. Dameron, president of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, argue that employers are legally responsible for the actions of their employes and under the law could be forced to hire someone who could prove "disruptive" or "go berserk on the job."

"That person might be a great employe for a week," said Dameron, "and then go out and shoot your best customer or the treasurer of your company."

If the experience of half a dozen other states is any indication, such arguments appear to be largely symbolic.

At least 26 states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination against the mentally handicapped, including the mentally ill. So does the federal law, which applies to federal agencies and public and private entities that receive federal funds.

Officials of agencies that investigate complaints in states such as Maryland, Missouri and Montana report much the same experience: very few cases have been filed alleging discrimination against the mentally ill and none has stirred much controversy.

Eric Johnson, an official with the Maryland Commission on Human Rights, said the typical case alleging discrimination on the basis of mental illness involves an employe who loses a job after suffering an emotional breakdown. One employer, for instance, refused to keep a salesman who couldn't keep track of conversations with customers when his illness began. The state agency held that the employer had to rehire the salesman after a doctor said the man had recovered.

Another case involved an apartment complex that would not rent to a woman who had just been released after 10 years in a psychiatric institution. Johnson said a representative from the complex gave the woman a verbal test on current events and turned down her application when she couldn't name Jimmy Carter as the last president.

Johnson said the commission found the woman was able to live on her own and ordered the apartment complex to rent to her as long as "she didn't go around knocking on people's doors at 3 in the morning.

"Usually we're able to work out something unless a doctor flat out says this person cannot work there or live there," Johnson said.

In contrast to Virginia, the Maryland law has hardly raised a corporate eyebrow. "I think if it was giving them employers a lot of trouble we would have heard about it," said Ed McNeal, executive vice president of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association.

His comments are echoed by Paul McKown, president of the West Virginia Retail Association, who said, "We've never had a problem relating to those types of things."

The scarcity of cases mystifies state officials such as Johnson, because of studies like one in 1976 that found employers view former mental patients with the same wariness as they view former convicts.

On the other hand, national mental health advocates said the fact that the laws have apparently not caused any furor is readily comprehensible. Despite popular opinion, the mentally ill are no more likely to be violent than the general population if class is taken into account, according to John Monahan, a law professor at the University of Virginia and other experts on mental health.

Leonard Rubenstein, an attorney with the Washington-based Mental Health Law Project, said the arguments of business groups in Virginia reflect the same prejudice and "the same kind of stereotype . . . that the law is trying to get rid of."

To that charge, Priddy answered: "We're not trying to hurt the handicapped, we're just trying to make sure we don't get hurt.

"If even one of them causes a situation of embarrassment or liability with our people, that's too much . . . . There's no reason the federal government or the state government couldn't hire them if they prefer."