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NOT SURPRISINGLY, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms is wrong once again.

The Republican known for his ultraconservative views says lesbianism is the issue in the Senate's consideration of Roberta Achtenberg as an assistant U.S. housing secretary.

That is hardly the issue. The issue is Ms. Achtenberg's qualifications for the post and her ability to do the job. Her sexual orientation is -- or at least should be -- totally irrelevant to the Senate's discussion.

Unfortunately, it hasn't been, thanks to people like Helms.

"We are crossing the threshold into the first time in the history of America that a homosexual, a lesbian, has been nominated by a president for a top job in the U.S. government," said Helms.

Coming from someone else, the same words might seem a welcome affirmation of this nation's ability to leave behind destructive stereotypes and move into an age in which each person is judged on the basis of skills and intellect. Helms and his ideological brethren, however, turn such words into a dire warning about the future of the republic should this nation decide to judge persons by their ability rather than their sexual orientation.

Helms says flatly, "I am not going to put a lesbian into a position like that." At least he's honest about his bigotry. Other Republicans are cloaking their opposition to Ms. Achtenberg in the guise of concern over her "temperament."

Supporters of Ms. Achtenberg rightly characterize these kinds of objections to her as "red herrings." If senators have real evidence to show that Ms. Achtenberg is not capable of handling the housing post, they should produce it and have it assessed as it would be for any other nominee.

Barring that, her appointment should not be delayed further. She should win confirmation by the Senate so that she can go to work in the important role of enforcing the nation's fair housing laws.

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