An article yesterday about a California ballot initiative on same-sex marriages incorrectly identified the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Published 10/23/1999)

The campaign to declare that marriage only between a man and a woman is legal in California--as opposed to a union of two men or two women--has suddenly turned very personal.

The issue, which is as much about homosexual rights as it is about family values, is pitting religious conservatives against gays and their allies here, and may once again roil the political waters of this bellwether state, just as initiatives over bilingual education, affirmative action and illegal immigrants have in the past.

And in this case, it already has pitted father against son.

In an opinion piece last week in the Los Angeles Times, the son of the ballot initiative's sponsor wrote that his father is anti-gay and pursuing "a blind, uncaring, uninformed, knee-jerk reaction to a subject about which he knows nothing and wants to know nothing, but which serves his political career."

The son, David Knight, revealed that he is gay and living with a "life partner" named Joe. He is also a graduate of the Air Force Academy, a former fighter pilot who served in the Persian Gulf War and now, at age 39, is a cabinet maker in Baltimore leading "a quiet, full life." He says his father has rejected him because of his sexual orientation.

David's father, the sponsor of the "Protection of Marriage" initiative, which will be put before voters here in March, is state Sen. William "Pete" Knight, a conservative Republican from Palmdale who has attempted--and failed--five times in the state house to pass similar legislation declaring that marriage is only for a man and a woman.

Neither David nor Pete Knight is discussing the matter with the news media, but Pete Knight did issue a statement saying, "I care deeply about my son," and adding he regrets that David "felt he needed to force a private, family matter into the public forum." He suggested that he and his son were closer than what David Knight told readers of the newspaper.

Three years ago, the senator, who also is a former test pilot who holds the Guinness Book of World Records mark for flying speed at 4,520 mph, publicly acknowledged that his son is gay, as was his younger brother, who died of AIDS.

The question of who makes a marriage is surfacing now because of recent attempts in states such as Hawaii and Vermont to legalize and sanction gay marriages.

If a same-gender couple were to get a legal marriage certificate in, say, Montpelier--as Hollywood's famous lesbian couple Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche suggested they might--and then come home to California, the state might have to recognize the union.

But in 1996, President Clinton signed the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, which essentially gave each state the right to determine its own laws on same-sex marriage. And many states have done so. Ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriages also recently passed in Alaska and Hawaii. Some day, both sides agree, the issue is headed for a big court test case.

Early polling shows that about six in 10 Californians support Knight's ballot initiative. But this will be a hard-fought and potentially divisive campaign--with each side promising to spend dollar for dollar, possibly as much as $10 million.

Opposing the initiative is a San Francisco-based group calling itself No on Knight. They argue that the initiative is unnecessary, unfair, divisive and intrusive.

Mike Marshall, the campaign manager for No on Knight, says that he believes the initiative is the beginning of an assault on gay rights in California and around the nation.

In the last legislative session in Sacramento, where Democrats control the state government, gays and lesbians won a windfall of protective measures, from extension of domestic partner benefits to including sexual orientation in anti-harassment laws.

"Clearly, the radical right is using this issue to mobilize their conservative base," Marshall said.

Supporters of the marriage measure have contributed almost $4 million so far--and much of the money has come from religious groups. Catholic bishops support the measure and so does the Church of Latter Day Saints.

"This is a new type of coalition," said Rob Stutzman, spokesman for the Protection of Marriage initiative. "The Catholic bishops are literally writing us checks, and so are the Mormons. We've got over 10,000 individual donations, and a lot of that is from the Church of Latter Day Saints. We've also got Muslims coming on board and conservative Jewish support--the kinds of people that normally don't sit together in a room and talk."

One strategy of the initiative's opponents is to hang the measure around the neck of its sponsor, by suggesting that Sen. Knight is fixated on homosexuality for personal reasons having to do with his estranged son and dead brother. The No on Knight group also is reminding visitors to its Web site that in 1993, when he had been recently elected to the California Assembly, Knight distributed a poem to fellow GOP members that many considered racist and inflammatory. The poem was, in essence, about how illegal immigrants from Mexico were lazy abusers of this country's welfare state.

Stutzman, spokesman for the marriage measure, describes all this as "a red herring" and says that his opponents' strategy is that "they don't want to talk about the initiative, so they go after the conservative white guy who introduced it."

CAPTION: State Sen. William "Pete" Knight is promoting anti-gay marriage initiative. His homosexual son David calls his father's stance "blind" and "uncaring."