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'Trenches of this battle': U.S. heartland cities debating gay rights measures

BY ALAN SCHER ZAGIER, ASSOCIATED PRESS

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Randy Doenning organizes a charity gala for gay teens and AIDS patients and isn't afraid to hold his male partner's hand in public in the Bible Belt city where he lives.

The small business owner also remembers when white supremacists bombed a gay church in Springfield, bomb-sniffing dogs and metal detectors were used at the local university for a play about a gay Jewish activist and the school's president refused to add sexual orientation to Southwest Missouri State University's nondiscrimination policy.

As the elected leaders in the city of 160,000 debate whether to prohibit discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Doenning and other activists are optimistic. They also know legal protections are anything but assured in a city that's home to the national headquarters of the Assemblies of God Church and three Bible colleges.

Across the heartland, from regional economic hubs in southwest Missouri such as Springfield to the Kansas plains and Nebraska college towns, the battle for gay rights is playing out in city halls and town squares, often with opponents of expanded nondiscrimination laws trying to reverse decisions by government officials.

"Places like Springfield, Missouri, are the trenches of this battle right now," said Doenning.

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