By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - A one-square-mile South Carolina town with four traffic lights is challenging the mayor's power to strip its lesbian police chief of her badge in what supporters are calling a case of workplace discrimination.
The controversy surrounding the firing of Crystal Moore, 42, has rallied the town of Latta and drawn the interest of national gay rights groups who argue that her case highlights the need to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Moore, a 20-year veteran of the police force and chief for two years, said her job record was clean until Mayor Earl Bullard issued seven reprimands in one day and fired her on April 15.
The town council responded this week with a unanimous vote of confidence in Moore and blocked the mayor from hiring a new chief for 60 days. Residents rallied outside the town hall to show their support and set up a "Stand With Chief Moore" fund.
Bullard, whose reprimands of the police chief included accusing her of running background checks without proper authorization and questioning the authority of a supervisor, said he could not discuss why he let Moore go, but that it was not because she is a lesbian.
"Absolutely not... and if you do investigating, you will find that that is not the case, I assure you," Bullard said in a phone interview.
After Moore's firing, a recording surfaced in which the mayor talked about "a questionable lifestyle."
"I'm not going to let two women stand up there and hold hands and let my child be aware," Bullard said on the recording, which was posted on the website of WBTW-TV, a local station. "I don't have to look at it, and I don't want my child around it."
Bullard defended the remarks as a general statement of his belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman, adding that "I never said I had an objection to gay people."
Though the South lags the rest of the country in backing gay rights, the reaction in Latta shows that such support extends beyond urban and liberal areas, said Ryan Wilson, executive director of South Carolina Equality, an advocacy group.
"Here's an example of an entire town where people don't care about who she is or who she loves, they care about how she does her job," Wilson said.
The case in Latta, a town of 1,400 residents near the North Carolina border, has also drawn the attention of groups pushing for federal and state laws to prevent workplace discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
The federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act has been considered by Congress for 20 years but never passed. South Carolina lawmakers will not vote on a measure to prevent workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity until next year at the earliest.
Moore said she felt encouraged by support from residents and council members. In 2011, the then-mayor attended her commitment ceremony with her partner, Moore said.
She wants her job back, and the town council could vote to reinstate her after they decide in June whether to switch from a strong-mayor to a strong-council form of government.
"People are upset about this," said council member Brian Mason. "After she was fired, people whose family members had been arrested at some point came up and hugged her."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Gunna Dickson)