Replay live coverage of Tuesday's council meeting.
How they voted
In favor: Festersen, Gray, Jerram, Gernandt
Against: Stothert, Thompson, Mulligan
The city clerk called for the vote. Councilman Garry Gernandt stared ahead and thought.
Weeks of scrutiny. Intense lobbying. Hours of emotional debate. Reams of information, letters and calls.
All of it went through Gernandt's head before he made up his mind. The clerk called his name, and the 66-year-old retired cop and South Omaha representative quietly said, “Yes.”
With that, a surprise swing vote ensured approval of the measure to grant legal protection from discrimination to Omaha's gay and transgender residents.
“I probably would have rather been in a gunfight,” Gernandt said hours later. “It was a very tough one.”
The Omaha City Council's 4-3 vote capped an intense debate that exposed divisions within the city's business and religious communities.
Among the nation's 50 largest cities, Omaha was one of 15 whose gay residents had no specific legal protection from discrimination before Tuesday's vote.
But the city's battle over the issue may not be over. Some opponents are exploring efforts to place a repeal measure on the ballot in next year's city elections. Court battles over the ordinance also could erupt.
“I'm sure we'll have to deal with the positive and negative reverberations of this for a while,” Gernandt said.
Sponsored by Councilman Ben Gray, the approved changes to city ordinances now allow lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents to file complaints with Omaha's Human Rights and Relations Department.
They can do so if they were fired because of their orientation, suffered other workplace discrimination or were refused service at restaurants, hotels or other places that serve the public.
Religious organizations are exempt from the regulations.
The council's vote fell along party lines. Gernandt's fellow Democrats — Gray, Pete Festersen and Chris Jerram — also voted to approve the measure.
Councilman Franklin Thompson, who scuttled a similar proposal in 2010 by refusing to break a 3-3 tie, voted no alongside fellow Republicans Jean Stothert and Tom Mulligan.
Thompson said he was concerned about potentially ambiguous language in the proposal that defines “gender identity” as “the actual or perceived appearance, expression, identity or behavior of a person as being male or female, whether or not that appearance, expression, identity or behavior is different from that traditionally associated with the person's designated sex at birth.”
Thompson explored amending the proposal to limit its scope to cover only sexual orientation, but the council refused to take up the amendment.
“I'm all for progress, but I want to keep us out of court, too,” Thompson said after the debate.
Mulligan repeated opponents' arguments that the ordinance contains vague language that could place an undue burden on small-business owners and force people to accept activities by government sanction that they find morally objectionable.
“You can be against this ordinance and you can also believe that people should be treated with respect and dignity,” Stothert said. “And to say anything else would not be fair. I think that you cannot legislate and tell people how to think.”
Gernandt joined Mulligan and Stothert to vote against the 2010 proposal, and he even tried to introduce an amendment to limit this year's ordinance solely to city employees. He pulled it after finding little support among his colleagues.
The vitriol that marked the 2010 debate pushed Gernandt away from voting in favor of the proposal, he said.
Other evidence and information since then helped sway him, though Gernandt said he was suspicious of a poll commissioned by gay rights activists that claimed broad support for the measure in his district.
“It kept coming back to me that we're still all part of one big, earthly mass here,” Gernandt said. “I may not agree with the lifestyle of the GLBT community … but they pay respect, and they should get respect. They should not be discriminated against.”
Immediately after the vote, ordinance supporters lingered outside the council chambers to celebrate. One woman held up a T-shirt with a rainbow shamrock that said, “Kiss Me, I'm Gay-lish.” People hugged, cried and shared wedding-day smiles.
Among them was the Rev. Tom Emmett, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church at 22nd and Leavenworth Streets.
For four decades the church has served a predominantly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population. Emmett said regular Sunday attendance numbers about 170, though the church counts more people than that as members.
Emmett said he was delighted by the vote. “Throughout history, God has been moving people closer to God's law of love, and we're just seeing that here.”
Mayor Jim Suttle and the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay and transgender rights advocacy organization, both issued statements praising the council.
Gernandt shrugged off praise sent in his direction.
“I did what I thought was the right thing to do,” he said. “Was this a difficult decision? Yes. But to those that are upset with the way the vote came out: Let's get over it, Omaha, and move on.”
World-Herald staff writer Erin Grace contributed to this report.
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