California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger finds himself in the middle of America’s culture war.
Schwarzenegger will soon decide whether to sign legislation designating May 22 as "Harvey Milk Day."
The day would honor the first openly gay person elected to U.S. public office.
But a coalition of conservative and outraged Christian groups claim that the commemoration is intended to promote the gay and lesbian life style in public schools.
Supporters deny this.
The latest eruption in the culture war began earlier this month when the state legislature passed a bill to commemorate the birthday of the late San Francisco city supervisor.
That bill has now reached the governor's desk and by law he has 30 days to either sign or veto it.
Whatever he decides, Schwarzenegger is sure to offend one side or the other. Gay rights advocates are hungry for a legislative victory after November's proposition banning same-sex marriage. Supporters of Milk Day have presented the governor with a petition bearing about 40,000 signatures.
Social conservatives, on the other hand, warn that Harvey Milk commemoration activities in California schools could be used to "indoctrinate" students.
Last year, under pressure from conservatives, Schwarzenegger vetoed nearly identical legislation on the grounds that Milk's career was primarily of local, rather than statewide, interest.
Since then, however, Sean Penn won an Oscar for his portrayal of the gay-rights activist in the movie “Milk”, and last month President Obama posthumously awarded Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation's highest honor for civilians.
Milk was one of the country's first openly gay representatives when he won election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977.
A strong advocate for gay and lesbian civil-rights, he is credited by supporters with playing an important role in defeating the 1978 Briggs Initiative that would have prohibited gays and lesbians from working in the California school system. Many Republicans, including former California governor Ronald Reagan, also opposed the initiative.
On Nov. 27, 1978, Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were shot and killed at city hall by former city supervisor Dan White, a former police officer. White had resigned from the board of supervisors and claimed he was double crossed by Milk and the Mayor. The killings stunned city leaders and made national headlines.
The SB 572 legislation that would create Harvey Milk Day -- if Schwarzenegger doesn't veto it again -- was re-introduced by state Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco.
“Harvey Milk is an inspiration to Californians who believe in fairness and equality,” Leno stated.
The bill would not create an actual holiday, but would "encourage" schools to conduct learning exercises "remembering the life of Harvey Milk, recognizing his accomplishments, and familiarizing pupils with the contributions he made to this state."
Conservatives say it is inappropriate for students to spend valuable classroom hours studying Milk's pro-gay agenda.
"This is beyond mere exercises," Randy Thomasson, the president of conservative SaveCalifornia.com, told CNSNews.com. "This is familiarizing. This is teaching. It's an indoctrination."
Although classroom exercises would not be mandatory, conservatives say the bill would almost inevitably trigger a classroom dialogue about homosexuality.
The governor's representatives remain noncommittal on whether he'll sign the bill, citing Schwarzenegger's policy of never commenting on legislation up for review.
In July, Undersecretary of Education Kathryn Radtkey-Gaither wrote a letter to Leno stating that her office continues to oppose the bill. Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Camille Anderson told SFgate.com that the letter does not represent the governor's position.
According to Thomasson, actor Penn and others have been lobbying Schwarzenegger to sign the bill. But Schwarzenegger also has been hearing from voters.
The governor's office reports it has received over 100,000 phone calls, letters, and e-mails from constituents.
"The majority are actually opposed to the bill," Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Andrea McCarthy told KTVU.com. She adds that Twitter users tend to favor it, however.
Regardless of Schwarzenegger's decision, it appears Milk will continue to be elevated to iconic status in the Golden State.
In addition to the award-winning film and the Presidential medal, Schwarzenegger and wife Maria Shriver have already announced that Milk will be inducted into the California Hall of Fame, which honors "legendary people who embody California’s innovative spirit and have made their mark on history."
Also, a campaign is underway to have a U.S. postage stamp created in his honor.
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