Two local gay rights advocates say they view the Omaha City Council's resolution to oppose workplace discrimination as a positive first step in their fight, but only that.
“Yes, we should encourage people to do the right thing, but we should also take the step to make it clear that it is illegal to do the wrong thing,” said the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones, who is gay and the senior minister of First Central Congregational United Church of Christ in Omaha.
The council voted 7-0 to approve the resolution after Jones and Michael Gordon of the local gay rights coalition Equal Omaha spoke at Tuesday's council meeting.
The Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce also weighed in to support the resolution, which was introduced by three council members who voted against efforts to grant legal protections to gay and transgender residents in 2010.
Tuesday's resolution comes as a new debate brews over such protections. But it's unclear whether the resolution will be seen as an alternative to council member Ben Gray's planned effort to change the city's anti-discrimination ordinances to include gay and transgender residents.
Under city ordinances, discrimination based on such factors as marital status, age, race and gender already is prohibited.
The resolution was sponsored by council members Jean Stothert, Garry Gernandt and Thomas Mulligan.
Stothert said the resolution was intended to “rise above the rhetoric” of the ongoing debate.
“What we really need to do at this point in time is say all people are important to us,” she said. “It's a positive statement. … Positive messages are always a good thing.”
Gray at first said he'd vote against the resolution, saying it lacked teeth. But he changed his position Tuesday and even introduced a motion to approve it.
The resolution doesn't do much good, but there's no harm in it either, Gray said Tuesday. The councilman reiterated his plans to propose amendments to city discrimination ordinances by the end of the month.
“Discussion of this issue is of paramount importance,” Gray said.
The resolution's language was carefully crafted to avoid specifically mentioning any group.
Instead, it says, “All people possess an innate human dignity that must be acknowledged and respected.”
The council also pledges to work with business and community leaders to promote workplaces that “promote respect and eliminate any workplace discrimination,” according to the resolution.
Chamber President David Brown, in a letter to the council, said the resolution would “reinforce Omaha's image as the best place to live and work.”
“Omaha is certainly a welcoming and inclusive place,” Brown wrote, “But we do need to constantly reinforce that — from government leadership to individual employers and associations.”
Wendy Boyer, the chamber's vice president of community affairs, said Brown's comments reiterated part of the chamber's position from 2010.
She said the chamber would not take a position on Gray's proposal until it was formally introduced.
Gray's amendments to the city's anti-discrimination ordinances would allow gay and transgender residents who believed that they were fired over their orientation, suffered other workplace discrimination or were refused service at a restaurant, hotel or other place that serves the public to file a complaint with Omaha's Human Rights and Relations Department.
Draft language in the proposal, provided to The World-Herald, would exclude all religious organizations from adhering to provisions prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Employers would not be required to provide employment benefits to same-sex partners under the proposal.
In 2010, the chamber's executive committee, Christian-oriented policy groups and others urged council members to vote against the changes. Chamber officials had argued that the ordinance would impose ambiguous and unclear regulations and would be difficult for businesses to implement.
The issue, the chamber said, would be best resolved at the state or federal level, and it encouraged the City Council to work with community groups to come up with a voluntary approach to creating an inclusive workplace.
Meanwhile, State Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha has introduced a bill in the Legislature that would bar Nebraska cities and local governments from unilaterally creating new classes of residents protected from discrimination. McCoy's Legislative Bill 912 would grant such authority solely to the state.
A hearing on the bill is scheduled for Feb. 22 before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.
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