The American Bar Association's governing body declined yesterday to put the nation's largest lawyer organization on record as opposing discrimination against homosexuals in housing, employment and public accommodations.
The ABA's House of Delegates, which sets policy for the association, also approved new guidelines for evaluating judges -- a package bitterly opposed by a large segment of the judiciary -- and condemned the "few lawyers" who descended on Bhopal, India, last December to sign up clients after a gas leak from a Union Carbide Corp. plant killed and injured thousands.
The gay-rights resolution, which failed on a vote of 152 to 161, generated the most heated and emotional debate during the ABA's week-long convention here. It was carefully packaged by supporters as a measure to guarantee basic civil and privacy rights, but was attacked by opponents as a perceived ABA endorsement of homosexuality. A similar measure was rejected in 1983.
Dan J. Bradley, who revealed in 1982 that he was a homosexual as he stepped down as president of the federal Legal Services Corp., said he was "disappointed but not surprised" by yesterday's defeat. "The ABA has never been out front, the first on civil rights issues ," Bradley said. "The ABA is a conservative entity. It is difficult for members to support something as controversial as gay rights."
Bradley vowed that no matter how "distasteful and uncomfortable" it is to the ABA leadership, "It is an issue that will not go away."
ABA resolutions state policy for the association, which represents more than 300,000 lawyers. The measures are not binding but are meant to spark action by legislative bodies around the nation.
The gay-rights measure called on Congress, states and localities to adopt laws banning discrimination against homosexuals. Supporters amended it to state that the ABA does not approve or endorse homosexual activity. But that did not satisfy opponents.
Joe Stamper, an ABA delegate from Antlers, Okla., charged during the debate that passage "would suggest to America that ABA members approve deviant sexual conduct."
Augustine Smythe, of Charleston, S.C., said no jurisdiction in his state would follow its lead in public employment. "I can't imagine a school district in South Carolina where parents would accept a known, practicing homosexual as a role model for their children."
But Henry G. Miller, of White Plains, N.Y., branded as "silly" the argument that "homosexual teachers make children homosexual.
"I was educated in Catholic schools where nuns and priests took the vow of chastity," he told the group of more than 400 delegates. "I was never tempted to follow that example."
Proponents said the measure did nothing more than condemn the kind of discrimination felt by blacks, Roman Catholics, Jews and other groups. "We are not advocating a homosexual life style," said Gregory A. Long, of Los Angeles. "We are here to say we must stand up and support basic civil rights."
In other actions, the House of Delegates adopted by voice vote a measure condemning lawyers who, according to the measure's proponents, violated legal ethics by soliciting clients in India. Supporters charged that these "few lawyers" sought "to personally benefit from the recent tragedy in Bhopal" and created the impression that many lawyers engage in "such improper" practices.
The House also approved judicial evaluation guidelines designed to provide a "checklist" for jurisdictions that wish to adopt them. The guidelines were bitterly opposed by many judges, whose representatives asserted that they would compromise "judicial independence," in part because the process would not necessarily be confidential.
Supporters, however, argued they were "tools for judicial improvement." Said Richard Kuh of New York, head of the committee that proposed them, "All of us, judges included, can stand improvement . . . and can stand someone from outside looking in on us . . . ."