The current debate over gay rights has obscured the real issue - the difference between two principles. One is discrimination by the state against homosexuals; the other is discrimination by private individuals against homosexuals - and state action to prevent such discrimination by individuals.

A clear example of the first kind of discrimination is the recently defeated Proposition 6 in California. The measure would have let local school boards dismiss (or refuse to hire) any exployee who had engaged in homosexual activity likely to come to the attention of children. It might even have applied to people who were not homosexual themselves but who "advocated" homosexuality.

By making open homosexuality itself a basis for dismissal, the law would have institutionalized discrimintion by the state against individuals because of a characteristic unrelated to their performance as teachers. Such a law would not have accounted for the individual characteristics of the particualr teacher involved since, in any specific case, the homosexuality might not affect the students or the effectiveness of the teacher. Morever, even if it did have such an effec, it might be more than balanced by an exemplary record of competence, compassion and experience.

This is akin to discrimination on grounds of any other personal decision, political, sexual or social. But unless the decision gets in the way of personal performance, individuals should not be penalized by the government for them. Moral and religious qualms about homosexuality may be legitimate, but they do not give rise to a moral right to withhold government jobs, benefits or services because of them.

The worst form of such government discrimination has been criminal sanctions against homosexual acts between consenting adults. These laws are wrong for the same reasons Proposition 6 was wrong: They discriminate the basis of an irrelevant personal decision. But criminal sanctions go further, punishing people directly for their personal choices, in an area where the government has no business being. Being fired from one's job is a severe, yet indirect, form of punishment, but it does not compare with the stigma, loss of liberty and disruption of one's life that result from criminal prosecution and imprisonment.

However, after having fought the coercive power of the state for years, homosexual-rights activists are now trying to marshal that same coercive power on their own behalf. At all levels of government they have been seeking legislative intervention to stop discrimination by private individuals against homosexuals.

The string of recently repealed homosexual-rights ordinances are examples of their activites. The ordinances generally ban discrimination by private individuals against homosexuals in employment, housing and accommodations; almost 40 cities across the nation have adopted similar measures.

The problem with these law is that they violate the rights of homosexual-phobic people. For just as government action should not be used to discriminate against homosexuals, it should not be used to bludgeon people into accepting homosexuality in their private affairs. Private individuals should be free to associate with, rent to and do business with other individuals who make whatever voluntary decisions (whether sexual, social or political) they prefer. Though such discrimination may be silly, dumb and even immoral in someone else's eyes, that "someone else" has no right to interfere in these personal choices of individuals. Freedom includes the freedom to be wrong.

Homosexuals have the right to decide what sort of life they will lead. Once they've made that decision, they should not suffer discrimination by the state because of it. However, they must accept the consequences of their choice; they have no right to use the state to suppress the prejudices of people against their own lifestyle decisions. If homosexuals have the right to assert their own lifestyles, others have the right to run their own lives based on those same choices.