High-profile personalities, including filmmaker Alexander Payne and assistant Nebraska football coach Ron Brown, punctuated a debate Tuesday on gay rights that packed the Omaha City Council chambers and ranged from the nature of civil rights to the rights of private enterprise and religious groups.
About 100 people testified on Councilman Ben Gray's proposed amendments to city discrimination laws.
The amendments would allow lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents to file complaints with Omaha's Human Rights and Relations Department if they were fired over their orientation, suffered other workplace discrimination or were refused service at restaurants, hotels or other places that serve the public.
Councilman Franklin Thompson, who killed a similar proposal in 2010 by refusing to vote, said before the meeting that "whoever wins the debate on Tuesday will get my vote."
Thompson said after the marathon public hearing that he needs more time to clarify several issues — including the amendment's definition of gender identity.
"There are still questions that are out there for me," he said. "I think I know where I'm going, but I want to have that cross-examination before I go public with it."
A cadre of supporters — including students, local professionals and several religious leaders — started the discussion with a stream of testimony that Thompson would later praise.
"We hired you as our public leaders to lead us in justice, not to determine religious doctrine," said the Rev. Jane Florence of First United Methodist Church in Omaha. "It's a disgrace when Scripture is used to exclude and condemn and marginalize people, beloved people of God."
Other proponents said that amending the ordinance is needed to address discrimination against gay and transgender residents; that approving the amendments would provide equal protection for all residents; and that such action is needed to ensure that Omaha is perceived as a welcoming place to all.
"I live in fear," said Ejay Jack, an Omaha resident. "This fear comes from others who may discriminate against me merely because I am a transgender man."
"I am not looking for special treatment in the workplace," he added.
Opponents, many of them representing local church congregations and citing religious principles, said protections for gays and transgender residents would create unnecessary regulations that could be addressed voluntarily by the business community.
They decried what they said was vague language that could place an undue burden on small-business owners, promote a needlessly litigious environment and create unintended consequences for the city.
Further, they said, the amended ordinance would force those morally opposed to gay and transgender activity to accept state-sanctioned behavior.
"Our councils will pass away. Our written, man-made laws will pass away into extinction. But the word of God will stand forever. We will be judged by it. I pray we consider that," said the Rev. Dr. Stan Rone, head of the Worship Center church in northeast Omaha.
Brown, the football coach, also repeated that theme:
"The question I have for you, like Pontius Pilate, is: 'What are you going to do with Jesus?' For those of you on this council who have a relationship with Christ, and only you know if you do, you will be held to great accountability for the decision you make."
Payne, an Omaha native and award-winning director and screenwriter, said such anti-discrimination laws will be commonplace in the country in the near future.
"My dad always taught me, 'Do it now,'" he said.
Said former Omaha Mayor Mike Boyle during his brief testimony: "It's just the right thing to do."
Though Gray's proposed language includes an exemption for religious organizations, he said concerns from 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 City Council weighs in on the full proposal next week.
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