A gay bookstore that claims it is being harassed by local customs officers appealed to Canada's Supreme Court on Wednesday to order the government to pay the shop's legal fees so it can continue a two-decade-long fight over book seizures.

Some civil libertarians consider it a crucial freedom-of-speech case, saying government officials are arbitrarily stopping the store from obtaining books that other shops are allowed to import only because it caters to homosexuals.

Jim Deva, co-owner of Little Sister's, said that the case has cost the store more than $425,000 and that he cannot afford to pursue the fight without government financial help.

Canada's Supreme Court sometimes orders government authorities to cover all legal costs when it determines important constitutional issues are at stake.

Federal officials told the high court during a hearing in Ottawa that the case is only a minor one that doesn't merit such a ruling. They said it could cost taxpayers up to $1.7 million if the government was forced to foot the legal bills.

Canada does not have national standards specifying which obscene materials should be barred from entering the country, leaving it up to individual customs officers to determine if a publication is obscene and might harm the public.

The battle dates from 1985, when customs began seizing some book shipments to Little Sister's Book & Art Emporium in Vancouver, ruling them obscene.

Deva told The Associated Press that if he does not get government funding to fight the seizures, it will send a message to Canadians that they cannot challenge officialdom.

"It means you can't oppose them. They have all the control and power without any controls," Deva said. "The question is are we speaking just about our store or are we really speaking for our community or for freedom of expression for people across Canada?"

Deva and his supporters believe the store is being singled out by customs officers who are biased against homosexuality.

At one point, officers confiscated poems by the Greek poet Horace, Oscar Wilde's "Teleny," Quentin Crisp's "The Naked Civil Servant" and Joe Orton's "Prick Up Your Ears."

Celia Duthie, who owns a mainstream bookstore, Duthie Books, has testified that she ordered the same volumes from the same supplier and received them without problems.

The case, which has wended its way through years of hearings in British Columbia courts, also went before the Supreme Court in 2000. The high court then upheld the customs agency's power to censor imported material, but it also ordered officials to overhaul their procedures for seizing books.

Joseph Arvay, an attorney for the bookstore, told the Supreme Court on Wednesday that the shop is seeking federal money for legal fees only because the customs agency has not obeyed the earlier ruling to improve the way it makes obscenity decisions.

Little Sister's says officers continue to confiscate materials that depict bondage and sadomasochism.

"If customs bans one book improperly, that should alarm all Canadians," Arvay told the court. "That's something that should cause this court to consider this case to be of exceptional importance."

The store currently is fighting seizures of two series of Meatmen comics and the books "Of Slaves & Ropes & Lovers" and "Of Men, Ropes and Remembrance."

Brian McLaughlin, a lawyer for the customs agency, argued that the case is minor since it involves only two books and two comics that represent a fraction of the store's business.

"There must be a public benefit commensurate with the public expense," he said.