The Omaha City Council has defeated a proposal to include sexual orientation and expression as a protected class in the city charter. The vote was 3 to 3. A tie vote means defeat for the idea, introduced by council member Ben Gray.
Currently, the city charter reads, “All persons regardless of race, creed, color, sex or national origin shall have… equal protection.” Gray’s proposal would have added sexual orientation.
Debate over the issue was heated Tuesday. Some council members described it as more of a hot button than taxes. Security was tight because of some threats against council members before the meeting. During the meeting, both sides were respectful.
Here are some of the comments directed at the council. "I am a little emotional right now because I've never been judged so many times in one day because I am a gay man," said
For more than four hours, the public spoke into a microphone at a podium regarding a plan to give gays and lesbians equal protection in the city of Omaha - something the state and federal government do not do. Omaha's proposal would be similar to those which have been adopted in 21 states.
"Our young professionals demand that this city is tolerant. It's time we catch up with that," said one man. "The same surveys say we are not going a good job at it."
"If this is passed and not left up to the people," said one woman, "it will ensure that employment decisions are made by job performance solely…not about someone's sexual orientation."
The other side wanted the decision to be made by a vote of the people -- not the council.
"If there are no studies showing this is needed is see it as a proposal to put a stamp of endorsement on the gay and lesbian lifestyle," said one man.
"There's no church in my district that I know who discriminates against homosexuals," said one pastor. "But the church does have a moral obligation to teach what we believe."
Opponents also quoted Bible passages and talked about unintended consequences if it passed – like whether businesses in Omaha could be crippled by lawsuits.
Supporters say it’s a civil rights issue and took offense to council member Franklin Thompson’s alternative proposal to bring the issue to voters. His proposal will be considered by the council at a later date.
Council member Jean Stothert, who voted against Gray’s proposal, said there are already measures in place that protect everyone. She would like to see those toughened rather than add another protected group of citizens.
Thompson says he goes both ways on the issue, but he chose not to vote on Gray’s proposal saying he has not come to a decision. Those who voted for it were Ben Gray, Pete Festersen and Chris Jerram. Those who voted against it were Garry Gernandt, Jean Stothert, and Thomas Mulligan.
Gray was disappointed with the vote and may bring up the issue again in the next year or two. "I think the issue is clear. If we have citizens…these are not gay or lesbians…they are citizens who pay taxes -- if we have citizens who are in fear of the beliefs of the majority - they ought to be protected. And we didn't get there today."
Councilman Thompson's proposal to make it a ballot box issue will go before the council next week, November 2. If approved, it would go before voters in May 2012.