LINCOLN — Mayor Chris Beutler said today that Lincoln residents should vote on a proposal to extend civil rights protection to people who are gay or transgendered in the wake of a successful petition drive.
The Lincoln City Council approved an ordinance banning discrimination against gay and transgendered people on May 14, but organizers of a referendum delivered about 10,000 signatures Tuesday calling for a vote – eclipsing the 2,500 signatures needed. Shortly before the council vote, Attorney General Jon Bruning issued a legal opinion saying the city couldn’t legally add civil rights classes that go beyond what’s in state law, and at the very least, the issue should be put to a vote of the people.
The Nebraska Family Council and Family First Nebraska spearheaded the referendum drive. In the last few days of signature-gathering, the groups learned the city attorney thought the language on their petition was flawed, but he refused to tell them why, citing attorney-client privilege. That led to speculation that Beutler’s administration might mount a legal challenge to the petition drive – but today Beutler made it clear he doesn’t intend to do that.
“The people have clearly and fairly indicated their desire to vote on it,” Beutler said on Jack & John in the Morning. “I think it should be voted on.”
However, Beutler said he’s weighing legal questions about the language of the petition.
Vince Powers, a Lincoln employment lawyer and Democratic national committeeman, alerted the mayor to a potential problem with the petition. On May 22, Powers hand-delivered a letter to the mayor’s office telling Beutler he believes the petition language is flawed because Nebraska has a single subject rule that requires ballots to focus on one issue. Since the gay rights ordinance created two classes – sexual orientation and gender identity – Powers said voters should be allowed to vote on each. A voter might support protection based on sexual orientation, for example, but not gender identity.
Not long after Powers dropped off the letter, word of it leaked out of city hall to petition organizers, who quickly mobilized and warned Beutler not to thwart the will of people to vote. Beutler told KLIN that due process is important and he is trying to find a way to make the ballot language fair and proper.
“I don’t want to put something on the ballot that would be considered unfair,” he said.
It appears the most likely solution would be to repeal the ordinance and allow people to vote on a charter amendment in the spring municipal election.
Powers said if the issues aren’t separated, the election could be voided – as happened in a North Platte case in September, when the Nebraska Supreme Court voided an election in which voters were asked to vote on two unrelated issues related to how the city spends hotel tax dollars.
David Bydalek, executive director of Family First Nebraska, called Powers’ legal analysis a “huge stretch,” noting that there was only one ordinance to refer, not two.
“It is a tenuous legal theory at best,” he said.
Powers accused the petition organizers of spreading falsehoods about the ordinance by claiming that making an idle comment about opposing homosexuality at work could result in a lawsuit, for example.
“Any competent lawyer would tell you this isn’t true,” Powers said. “These are smart people who are blinded by their fear of homosexuality.”
Bydalek said that was ridiculous and that Powers is the one being blinded by his support for the ordinance.
Powers doesn’t expect anyone would sue under the ordinance because it included no provisions for damages or remedies.
“This is just a symbolic gesture,” Powers said. “It’s good; I support it, but nobody’s going to file any lawsuit under it.”
However, Bydalek said the city’s human rights commission can impose fines and take actions against an employer who violates such an ordinance.
“Maybe you don’t see lawsuits but you see businesses and individuals dealing with bureaucratic sanctions,” he said.
He thinks the mayor is considering lumping together on a ballot several protected classes that are already in city ordinance but not in the city charter – which Bydalek said would cause an uproar.
“I would not put it past them,” he said. Although he usually focuses on state issues, he said getting involved in Lincoln politics has been eye-opening.
“I was not aware that there was such a heavy-handed attitude or way of doing things over at city hall,” he said.
It’s up to the City Council to decide how to proceed, and Beutler said today he wants the council to resolve the issue and have a vote as soon as possible.
“Whichever way it goes, we accept it as the judgment of the democracy,” he told KLIN.
Reported by Deena Winter, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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