Hundreds pack city hall for gay rights hearing
March 7th, 2012
Omaha, NE – Dozens of people testified Tuesday for and against a controversial proposed city ordinance that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in Omaha.
“We need to be respectful of each other and we need to understand that different opinions will be offered today,” Council President Thomas Mulligan introduced the public hearing, as dozens of people lined up to testify, and hundreds more sat in the aisles of the legislative chambers at city hall.
The ordinance under debate, which was introduced by Councilman Ben Gray, would add just a few words to city code. Gender identity and sexual orientation would be added to a list of protected classes that Omaha prohibits from discrimination in the workplace and in public accommodations. Those include race, religion, sex, marital status, national origin, age or disability.
Benjamin Alvarado is a professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha. He was the first to testify in support of the bill, and presented an argument many others echoed. “Equal employment ordinance has much larger impact regionally and nationally,” Alvarado said. “(It) is an opportunity to send a message to the rest of the nation that Omaha, Nebraska is an open and accepting environment for people from all walks of life.”
Supporters included many members of the Omaha arts community, including its biggest export: filmmaker Alexander Payne, who made a surprise appearance.
“As a proud Omahan, I support passage of Councilman Gray’s equal opportunity ordinance,” Payne said. “When considering social public policy, I try to think of what sorts of ordinances and protections would probably be common years from now, and why don’t we just do them today. My educated guess is that in just a few short years protections like those Councilman Gray is proposing will be absolutely everywhere in the U.S. if not the law of the land. And my dad always taught me, do it now.”
Jerry Sullivan is a real estate attorney for Union Pacific. He testified, on his own behalf, as a gay man who has faced discrimination in his career. He said he feels fortunate to work for UP, which has a zero tolerance policy for any discrimination. Sullivan said many employers voluntarily provide protections for their LGBT employees, but Omaha’s lack of legal protections across the board makes the city less competitive.
“Corporate America and businesses in Omaha are leading the charge for equality in the workplace for the LGBT community, and this isn’t because it’s right, it’s also because it’s good for business,” Sullivan said. “Diversity and inclusion is a business proposition in today’s world since the future success of a business depends on its ability to attract, hire, develop, train and retain diverse talent.”
“Passing Councilmember Gray’s ordinance would good for Omaha employees, good for Omaha employers and good for Omaha,” he said.
Omaha is in the minority of large cities that don’t have protections for gay residents on the books. But some who testified in opposition to the proposal argued it would place an undue burden on employers.
Patrick Rinn said he was concerned about the ramifications for local businesses. “If I refuse to hire a gay person, for whatever reason, I’m now in a position of weakness, because I may not know if they’re gay or not. I don’t really care,” Rinn said. “I’ve had gay people work for me, and frankly, they’ve put money in my pocket. My concern is … if I do hire someone, and they’re not competent, I am a sitting duck.”
Carol Clough agreed, arguing the ordinance would require employers to prove intent. She said when the ordinance was first introduced in 2010, “I heard testimony that said, well, I was fired for such and such but I really know it was because I was gay, or because I was transgendered,” she said. “Maybe it was, but none of us are mind readers. And you put the judges, you put yourselves, in the position of trying to have to understand somebody’s inner workings, and that’s just not possible.”
But much of the opposition testified on religious grounds, citing Biblical scripture, and arguing the ordinance would condone immoral behavior.
Daniel Holleran is a minister from Bellevue. “Now I’m a minister so you’re going to get a little bit of God’s word, that’s what He told me to deliver,” Holleran said. “First, God says read this to the people. And I will tell you God showed me in this room, if this ordinance passes, judgment is coming on Omaha, Nebraska. You’re crossing a line, a spiritual line. And God really doesn’t care what people think. He’s God all by himself.”
Several pastors from various denominations around the city testified in opposition to the ordinance. Supportive pastors included those from Countryside Community Church and First United Methodist Church.
Still others testifying in support shared personal stories of discrimination, and many spoke of the fear they’d felt in the workplace – hoping their personal lives would not be “outed” to their colleagues. Emily Moody read a letter on behalf a friend, who is biracial and a lesbian. She only used her first name: Natalie.
“There no hiding the fact that in Omaha you can be fired for being gay. It’s thrown in your face each and every day when you walk into the office and you see family photos on everyone’s desks but your own,” she read. “You can’t attend the company’s family picnic with your significant other for fear of what might happen to your career.”
“It’s taken a tremendous amount of courage for me to write this, and I could potentially suffer severe consequences at work for submitting this,” she continued. “However this is not just about me, it’s also about the next generation and their rights, the rights of my children, who are on their way. This is about me and thousands of others to finally be a human being. Not the black woman. Not the lesbian. Just Natalie.”
Testimony continued for several hours, with supporters and opponents speaking for about three hours on each side.
Councilman Gray introduced a similar proposal in 2010, but it stalled with a vote of 3-3. He hasn’t predicted whether the ordinance will make it through this time around, but he says some “language issues” have been cleared up since then. That includes an exemption added for religious organizations who object to the ordinance on moral grounds.
The vote, which could happen as early as next week, could come down to Councilman Franklin Thompson, who abstained from voting in 2010. He has promised he will vote one way or the other this time.
Before the hearing began, he said he plans to make his decision based only on public testimony: whoever has the most persuasive argument.