Disappointed members of Omaha's gay and lesbian community exchanged hugs and wiped away tears Tuesday after the City Council voted down a proposal to give them new protections against discrimination.
The council “shirked its responsibility to this city and this state,” said Omaha gay activist Scott Winkler. “They did a disservice to both.”
After nearly five hours of discussion, the ordinance failed on a 3-3 vote.
Councilmen Ben Gray, Pete Festersen and Chris Jerram voted in favor; Jean Stothert, Garry Gernandt and Thomas Mulligan were opposed. Councilman Franklin Thompson, who has called for a public vote on the issue, abstained.
The meeting ended soon after the vote. Council members went into closed session and did not stick around the legislative chambers to comment on the vote.
Gray, author of the ordinance, proposed that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people be a protected class under city code protection they don't currently have under state or federal law.
The change would have affected Omaha employers. Gray had amended the proposal to exclude religious organizations.
Some members of the Omaha business community opposed the ordinance, although a young professionals group supported it.
The council held a packed public hearing Tuesday on a separate proposal introduced by Thompson to put the issue to a public vote in the form of an amendment to the City Charter. The vote on Thompson's measure is expected next week.
While it appeared that gay rights advocates could get a second chance with Thompson's proposal, most of them said a public vote would likely cause more problems. They said it was unfair to put a civil rights issue to a popular vote.
“It certainly would be divisive,” said Winkler, who is on the board of Citizens for Equal Protection, an advocacy group formed in the late 1990s to fight Nebraska's prohibition on same-sex marriage. “What can you expect?”
Federal and Nebraska discrimination laws do not cover sexual orientation, though 135 cities and 21 states have adopted similar measures, according to a group that backs the ordinance. Iowa and Council Bluffs are among those that have such legal protections.
Gay rights advocates turned to Omaha after repeated failures to enact a similar law at the state level. The last attempt was introduced in 2007 by then-State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha.
About 40 people spoke at Tuesday's public hearing.
“It's not about sex . . . it's about civil rights,” said Omahan Sheri Shuler, who supported Gray's proposal.
Part of the discussion surrounded whether the city had the legal authority to enact such changes. Stothert and Mulligan said they wanted the Nebraska Attorney General's Office to weigh in.
Some of the church leaders who spoke were against Gray's plan or supported putting the issue to a public vote.
Several people quoted Bible passages as they outlined reasons for opposing the ordinance.
“I find it offensive that we would equate this with civil rights,” said Pastor Cedric Perkins of Pilgrim Baptist Church. “Those rights were based upon a person's color of their skin, which they could not change.”
Said the Rev. Kate Rohde of First Unitarian Church in Omaha, a supporter of the ordinance: “A lot of people who spoke previously don't speak for all the congregations in our community.”
Chelsea Molly asked the council to approve Gray's proposal and not put the matter up for a public vote. She said she has been fired for being gay.
Addressing council members, she said the situation was “no different than you being fired for being white, you being fired for being black and you being fired for being a woman.”
Existing city ordinances already include language prohibiting bias based on race, color, creed, religion, sex, marital status, national origin, age and disability.
Gray's ordinance would allow gay and transgender residents who believe they have been fired or suffered other workplace discrimination, or refused service at a restaurant, hotel or other place that serves the public, to file a complaint with Omaha's Human Rights and Relations Department.
Opponents who spoke Tuesday worried that Gray's proposal would cause workplace problem, such as which bathroom a transgender person would use in the office. Business owners also expressed concerns about getting sued.
Gay rights advocates said a similar ordinance in Council Bluffs had not caused that city any known problems.
“If we drive 10 minutes east of here,” said Ruth Marimo, “we're not going to burn.”