Is Omaha Ready For Equal Opportunity

Councilman Gray’s anti-discrimination ordinance gets a March 6 public hearing

City Council member Ben Gray has some advice for people who plan to attend the March 6 public hearing for his equal opportunity ordinance.

"Pack a lunch … and have a couple snacks just in case," Gray said.

"You're going to see more people than you've seen down at that Council in a while."

During a Saturday breakfast at Village Inn with members of Voice Omaha, Citizens for Equal Protection, and the Gay Nebraska Youth Network, Gray said he expected a lengthy public debate for an ordinance that he originally proposed in 2010. The ordinance would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The original resolution didn't pass because the City Council was deadlocked 3-3 on the issue. After that vote, Gray said he didn't want to revisit the issue, but changed his mind after he received calls from people angered by the City Council's decision. 

"They thought this was a no-brainer," Gray said.

Gray spent most of 2011 revising the ordinance's verbiage. The main changes involved clarifying that religious institutions would still be allowed to discriminate against gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgendered individuals. The term "gender expression" was removed because it was covered under the term "gender identity," Gray said.

Mike Battershell, a member of Voice Omaha, said his organization tried to assemble data that supported the need for such a resolution to pass in Omaha for most of 2011. That data included studying similar ordinance language for neighboring cities like Council Bluffs and Kansas City.

"This isn't progressive language, this is standard language," Battershell said.

"The country's discussing gay marriage… and we're still fighting for basic protection for employment purposes."

Gray's proposed ordinance follows two other pieces of legislation that indirectly address LGBT discrimination – one at a local level and one at a state. Earlier this month, council members Jean Stothert, Thomas Mulligan, and Garry Gernandt proposed a resolution that stated the City Council would commit itself to working with business and community leaders "to promote respect and eliminate workplace discrimination." The resolution passed 7-0. When asked the difference his resolution and the three councilpersons, Gray said his has legal consequences to those who violate it.

"It doesn't sing Kumbaya," Gray said.

A second piece of legislation is a bill sponsored by State Sen. Beau McCoy. LB-912 would prohibit counties and cities from enacting their own guidelines for discrimination not covered in the Nebraska Fair Employment Fair Practice Act or the Nebraska Fair Housing Act. Both acts prohibit discrimination based on age, race, religion, and disability, but do not include gays and lesbians.  If passed, it would invalidate ordinances like Gray's. McCoy's bill is currently in the Unicameral Judiciary Committee.

Gray said he was optimistic McCoy's bill wouldn't pass and was also hopeful his ordinance would pass because he believed the issue of discrimination was a Constitutional issue and not a religious issue.

"The 14th Amendment is crystal clear… if you were born or naturalized in this country, you have a right to life, liberty, and property with due process and equal protection under the law," Gray said.

"It doesn't differentiate."

posted at 10:24 pm
on Sunday, February 26th, 2012

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