The national culture war over gay rights will take center stage Tuesday in Omaha, further exposing rifts within the city's business and religious communities.
Two years ago the debate over whether to legally protect gay and transgender residents from discrimination split the community and, ultimately, the Omaha City Council.
Councilman Ben Gray's latest anti-discrimination proposal is proving no less divisive on the eve of Tuesday's public hearing.
Councilman Franklin Thompson, who abstained from voting on the matter in 2010, has repeated his promise to vote this time around.
"Whoever wins the debate on Tuesday will get my vote," he said.
Mayor Jim Suttle said he would sign an updated anti-discrimination ordinance if the City Council approves it.
Suttle, who once worked as an engineer for HDR Inc., said that company addressed the matter 20 years ago.
But if discrimination against gays is still occurring in the community, Suttle said, the city ought to send a stronger message that the city is open to all people.
Fractures over the issue are still visible.
The Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, acknowledging a split among its members, announced last week it would stay neutral. The chamber's young professionals offshoot, meanwhile, supports Gray's proposal.
Council members have received numerous calls, letters and emails on both sides of the issue. However, council staff said other issues — including the downtown ballpark and tax matters — have generated more feedback.
A coalition of religious groups has written a letter objecting to creating "a special protected class" for gay or transgender residents.
"The impending ordinance by Councilman Ben Gray would force many of our congregants who own businesses to give special treatment to those who make certain sexual choices," the letter from the Nebraska Heritage Coalition says.
Major local institutions, however, including the Omaha Public Schools, the Metropolitan Community College board of governors and ConAgra Foods, have endorsed the proposal.
In a letter to the council, Metro President Randy Schmailzl said the measure would benefit the city economically and promote "an atmosphere of inclusion and equality for all."
Gray's amendments to the city's anti-discrimination ordinances would allow gay and transgender residents who believed 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.
Some of the area's religious leaders have taken their views on the matter to the pulpit, and to council members.
"We talk about how you can't legislate morality, but we see this ordinance as an attempt to do that," said Al Riskowski, director of the Nebraska Family Council, a Christian-oriented policy group that opposes the proposed amendments.
"You're trying to create a protected class over an issue that has been seen throughout history by churches as a morality issue," he said.
Church leaders are not unanimous in that opinion, however.
The Rev. Dr. Eric Elnes, senior pastor of Countryside Community Church and a supporter of Gray's proposal, said the council has no responsibility to decide between religious perspectives on sexual orientation.
"This is supposed to be about civil protection," Elnes said. "All we're saying is if a person wants to work, judge them solely on the quality of their work.
"Not passing the ordinance is tantamount to endorsing discrimination," he said.
The Archdiocese of Omaha said in a statement:
"Just as every other group in our society, the Catholic Church enjoys the same rights to hold to its beliefs, organize itself around them and argue for them in the public square. This is guaranteed by our Constitution. This includes the right to teach what it holds to be the truth concerning homosexual conduct — and to act as an employer consistent with that truth — without the threat of government sanction."
Though Gray's proposed language includes an exemption for religious organizations, he said concerns of Catholic leaders led three council members to offer an amendment to broaden and clarify the exemption.
That amendment specifically excludes from the provisions public places owned or operated by religious groups. The amendment will be voted on before the council weighs in on the full proposal next week.
"(Gray's) proposed amendment to the city ordinance appropriately recognizes a religious organization's right to adhere to its own belief in conducting its affairs," the archdiocese said.
Despite opposition from some Christian groups, religious supporters of Gray's proposal point to the Heartland Proclamation as evidence that the faith community is not of one mind on the subject.
Signed by 257 religious leaders from the region, including about 50 Omaha representatives, the proclamation says: "Homosexuality is not a sickness, not a choice, and not a sin. We find no rational biblical or theological basis to condemn or deny the rights of any person based on sexual orientation."
Representatives from Omaha congregations, including Trinity and First Lutheran Churches, the United Church of Christ and First United Methodist Church, have signed on. The Anti-Defamation League has also endorsed Gray's proposal.
By contrast, the Nebraska Heritage Coalition lists 226 opponents, including representatives of Salem Baptist Church, Lifegate Church, Westside Church, Christ Community Church, several Spanish-speaking congregations and the Nebraska Family Council.
"Homosexual activity (not temptation or preference) is explicitly prohibited as sin in multiple passages in the Old and New Testament," the group proclaimed in a full-page advertisement in The World-Herald on Feb. 26. "We do not have the right to change God's moral law to fit our sexual preferences."
The group also condemned violence directed at gay and transgender residents.
The Rev. Jane Florence, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church and a supporter of Gray's proposal, acknowledged that members of her denomination struggled with the issue from a theological standpoint.
"And yet we agree this is an issue of justice," Florence said. "We believe all persons are of sacred worth and sacred value."
World-Herald staff writer Jeffrey Robb contributed to this report.
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The Omaha City Council will hold a public hearing on a GLBT protections ordinance offered by Councilman Ben Gray during its meeting at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
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