CHARLESTON, S.C. - A square-mile 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 Latta, S.C., 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 last 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 said, "I'm not going to let two women stand up there and hold hands and let my child be aware I don't have to look at it, and I don't want my child around it." The recording was posted on the website of local WBTW-TV.

Bullard defended the remarks as a general statement of his belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

Though the South lags the rest of the country in backing gay rights, the reaction in Latta, a town of 1,400, 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.