Two years after adamantly opposing a similar proposal, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce announced Thursday it wouldn't take sides in the latest effort to ban discrimination against gay and transgender residents.
A statement issued by chamber officials Thursday acknowledged a split in the chamber's membership over the proposed changes to city ordinances, set for a public hearing before the City Council on Tuesday.
A neutral position from the chamber largely removes the city's most prominent business advocacy organization from a debate it waded into in 2010.
Councilman Ben Gray's original anti-discrimination ordinance failed on a 3-3 vote in 2010 after the chamber's executive committee, Christian-oriented policy groups and others urged council members to vote against it.
The chamber's position during that debate put it at odds with its young professionals offshoot, which is continuing its support. At least one large Omaha company, ConAgra Foods, also publicly endorsed the proposal this week.
In its latest statement, the chamber said some members believe the measure “presents ambiguous rules and a flawed administrative process that places an undue burden on business, particularly small business.”
Other members have encouraged the chamber to “support the ordinance to demonstrate Omaha is a welcoming and inclusive community,” the chamber said.
“Therefore the Greater Omaha Chamber will not take a position on the sexual orientation and sexual identity anti-discrimination ordinance,” the chamber said. “We would encourage Councilman Gray and the Omaha City Council to amend the ordinance so that it makes discrimination illegal, yet responds to issues we have raised.”
Wendy Boyer, the chamber's vice president of community affairs, said Thursday that its leadership would not elaborate on the statement.
Gray's proposal would apply to employers, employment agencies and labor organizations in Omaha and businesses that sign contracts with the city.
Religious organizations, as well as religious-affiliated colleges or schools, would be exempted from adhering to provisions prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
In its statement, the chamber also said “citizens and business leaders should vigorously oppose discrimination of any kind” and continue Omaha's “development as a welcoming community for all.”
Chamber President David Brown alluded to the split within the chamber's ranks in a Feb. 23 message to members titled “In The Middle.”
“When an issue arises that could possibly be viewed as negative on the regulatory side, but could also be perceived as positive on the side of attracting the best and brightest, we find ourselves in the middle,” Brown wrote.
“On these issues, we will not necessarily match every one of our members' opinions. In fact, with a large and diverse membership, it is likely that we will disappoint some of you occasionally,” he said.
In 2010, chamber officials argued that the ordinance would impose ambiguous and unclear regulations and would be difficult for businesses to implement.
The problem, the chamber said at the time, 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.
The federal government sets minimum standards for protection from discrimination but allows states to provide additional protection. Nebraska law also sets minimums and allows local governments to do more.
State lawmakers recently suggested that they aren't likely to stop Gray's proposal.
Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha had proposed a bill to prohibit cities and other local governments from protecting new classes of people not covered under state law. He argued that it was needed to prevent a patchwork quilt of discrimination ordinances across the state.
State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, head of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, has said he does not expect the panel to act on the bill.
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