Omaha passes LGBT ordinance
March 13th, 2012
Omaha, NE – The Omaha City Council passed a historic ordinance to expand legal protections to Omaha’s gay and transgender community Tuesday.
After about two hours of discussion, Omaha city council members voted to pass the ordinance by a vote of 4-3. In a surprising turn, the vote did not come down to Councilman Franklin Thompson, the lone abstention when the ordinance was first introduced in 2010.
Thompson voted no, but Councilman Garry Gernandt switched his vote to yes to form the majority. He said when the ordinance stalled in 2010, it was made clear it would return to the floor. “And at that time, I went public and said that if new data was brought forward, I would have no problem in re-examining that,” Gernandt said.
The ordinance was introduced by Councilman Ben Gray. It would amend Omaha’s existing anti-discrimination laws to add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to a list of protected classes.
At a public hearing last week, it drew impassioned responses on both sides. Supporters called it necessary to create an atmosphere of tolerance for gay and transgender people. Opponents argued it would create an undue burden on businesses and condone behavior many religions condemn.
While the ordinance includes an exemption for religious institutions, Councilwoman Jean Stothert argued that proves there’s no real need for it. “That First Amendment right is not just for the buildings, it’s for individuals,” Stothert said. “And I don’t understand how you could exempt the church, but not the people who go to church… So when you add on an exemption for a church, and you say, they’re exempt, they don’t have to follow this, but all the people that belong to that church do, it shows me the ordinance is flawed.”
Councilman Thompson deliberated extensively, and said he was concerned the concept of “gender identity” is too vague to be written into city code. That prompted this exchange with Councilman Gray.
“It seems like you’re drawing a hard line in the sand,” Thompson said. Gray replied, “No, it’s not a hard line in the sand. What we’re doing is we’re saying that, there are in the workplace, there are people who perceive other people a certain way, and in some instances, act on that. That needs to be protected. That’s not a hard line in the sand. That’s reality.”
Thompson countered, “And it seems to me that they are protected with the classification of sexual orientation.”
“But if someone perceives them a certain way, and they act on it, and it creates a hostile work environment, how do they address that?” Gray responded.
Thompson said he would support the ordinance if it was restricted to sexual orientation. But Gray said dropping gender identity would be a disservice to Omaha’s LGBT community. And he said there’s no evidence the ordinance would be harmful to businesses.
“It has been asserted that I’m trying to tell people who to hire,” Gray said. “I’m not telling you who to hire. I’m telling you, you can’t discriminate. There’s a difference.”
In his final remarks, Gray thanked those in the community who came forth to testify, and those who petitioned him to bring the ordinance back to the floor.
“It was an honor,” Gray said. “I have never seen such dedication…It was an honor and a privilege to work with you, and to serve you.”
And with that, the vote began, splitting the council on party lines. Democratic council members Gray, Chris Jerram, and Pete Festersen joined Gernandt in support, while Republican council members Stothert, Thompson and Thomas Mulligan voted no.
With the ordinance’s passage, Omaha joined the majority of large cities. Out of the top 50, 35 already have LGBT protections on the books. Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle released a statement following the vote, saying he applauds the council’s actions. “Omaha is a city that welcomes diversity, embraces fresh ideas,” he said, “and is open for business to everyone.”