LINCOLN — A Lincoln independent business group is trying to get its hands on a city attorney’s opinion dating to the 1980s because it could have some bearing on an anti-discrimination ordinance headed for the Lincoln City Council.
Councilman Carl Eskridge has said he will introduce an ordinance this week that would ban discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity – similar to an ordinance recently passed in Omaha.
Coby Mach, head of the Lincoln Independent Business Association, confirmed today that his group has asked the city of Lincoln for an opinion from the early 1980s relating to the classes protected by city ordinance. Mach said “folks that were around at that time” recall the city attorney saying that adding a new protected class would have to be done by changing the city charter, not by ordinance. It takes a vote of the people to change the charter. It only takes a vote of the City Council to introduce or amend an ordinance.
“We’re doing research to see what the effect would be on businesses but we have not taken any position for or against this,” Mach said. “And in fact, we still haven’t even read the ordinance.”
The city of Lincoln already protects people from discrimination in public accommodation, housing and employment based on their race, color, religion, gender, disability, national origin, familial status, ancestry, age or marital status. Mach said the city attorney’s opinion apparently referred to other classifications, not just sexual orientation or gender identity.
However, City Attorney Rod Confer said the city attorney’s opinion will not be shared with LIBA because it’s protected by attorney-client privilege. He would not discuss the contents of the opinion, either.
“If I tell you what the opinions say, then I’m waiving attorney-client privilege,” Confer told Nebraska Watchdog.
He said state law gives the city authority to pass such an ordinance and there’s no need to amend the city charter. Confer cited a 1981 attorney general’s opinion on whether cities have the right to enact ordinances that would protect classifications of people not specifically mentioned in state law. However, the opinion (which was sought by then state sen. David Landis, who now works for the city) said clarifying language might be helpful, since the statute could be interpreted both ways.
Mach had not yet been informed of Confer’s decision not to release the records on Wednesday, but added that LIBA’s request for the data is not indicative of its plans to endorse or oppose the ordinance.
The Lincoln Chamber of Commerce will take a neutral position on the ordinance, according to president Wendy Birdsall.
“We’ve got business leaders on both sides and no clear consensus,” she said.
Earlier this week, Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler said on Jack & John In the Morning, a KLIN radio show, he supports the ordinance and there’s no need for a charter amendment.
“These things are a matter of societal fairness in my opinion,” he said.
Beutler said gays and lesbians occupy “many high positions” and do “great work” for the university, businesses and government.
“We want to keep them here and we want to make them feel welcome,” Beutler said.
He said the ordinance would have protections for religious objections for churches and religious businesses. He noted that churches in the Civil War said slavery was dictated by the Bible and Mormonism once allowed polygamy, but those beliefs don’t have to be incorporated into the law of a democratic society.
He said the ordinance would not require employers to provide benefits to domestic partners.
In other news related to the ordinance, Nebraska assistant football coach Ron Brown told the Associated Press he is praying about whether to testify on Lincoln’s ordinance during the May 7 public hearing. Brown came under fire after testifying against Omaha’s ordinance, with some calling for his firing.
Reported by Deena Winter, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: to subscribe free of charge to News Updates from Nebraska Watchdog click here.