The Lincoln City Council voted 5-0 today to pass a gay rights ordinance similar to the one passed in Omaha – with the five Democrats on the council voting “yes” and the two Republicans abstaining from voting.
The ordinance protects gay and transgendered people from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation.
Opponents now have 15 days to decide whether to refer the ordinance to the people if they can gather about 2,500 signatures. Family First Nebraska and the Nebraska Family Council have vowed to attempt such a referendum.
The two Republicans – Adam Hornung and Jon Camp – cited Attorney General Jon Bruning’s recent legal opinion that extending civil rights protection to a class not named in state statute must done via a charter amendment, which must go to a vote of the people. That opinion mirrored a Lincoln city attorney’s opinion in the early 1980s, and the subsequent charter amendment failed at the polls.
But the Democrats on the council said the current city attorney, Rod Confer, has issued a new legal opinion that the city has the right to enact such legislation by ordinance.
Councilman Carl Eskridge, who sponsored the ordinance, said passing the law would be good for business and tell the world Lincoln is a progressive community.
“Prejudice and discrimination are never right in this community for any reason,” he said.
The council approved an amendment that strengthened religious exemptions requested by the Catholic diocese – and Councilwoman DiAnna Schimek said the resulting legislation does not detract from freedom of religion. She said the council had a responsibility to vote on the ordinance rather than pass off the issue to voters.
“It is important for us to do this,” she said. “It is a sign that we are a caring community.”
Councilman Doug Emery said some people who testified before the council threw out some things “to muddy waters” and “incite emotionalism.” He credited Eskridge for having the courage of his conviction to press on. Despite many opponents’ calls for a public vote, he said, “that’s why they call this a representative form of government.” And he suggested if voters didn’t like it, they could vote him out of office.
But Councilman Jon Camp said he felt the issue should go to the public.
“I did hear a resounding plea to put this to a vote of the people and I really think that should be the process,” he said.
Councilman Adam Hornung said when he became an attorney he swore to uphold the state constitution and law, and so he felt the council must heed the attorney general’s opinion that such a change should be made by charter amendment. He said participating in the vote would be a violation of the council’s duties, so he abstained. Camp then abstained, too.
Dave Bydalek, executive director of Family First Nebraska, said his group will spearhead the gathering of signatures to get the issue on the ballot, preferably in the spring 2013 municipal election.
Reported by Deena Winter, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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