LINCOLN — Lincoln City Councilman Carl Eskridge is among the officials here who closely watched Omaha's recent debate over gay rights.
For Eskridge, the Omaha City Council's 4-3 vote in March to protect gay and transgender residents from discrimination provided a springboard for a similar proposal in the capital city.
“We knew that it was in the hopper in Omaha,” Eskridge said. “We intentionally waited until Omaha reached their decision.”
Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray, who helped lead Omaha's effort, endorsed Eskridge's proposal during a press conference Friday at City Hall.
“We have to maintain constitutional protections for our citizens who were born and raised here,” Gray said. “It is more than way past time.”
Eskridge, elected in May to represent much of northwest and downtown Lincoln, will formally introduce the measure on Monday. A public hearing is scheduled for May 7, with a vote expected on May 14.
Modeled after Omaha's recent amendments to its anti-discrimination ordinances, the Lincoln measure would amend anti-bias laws to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes. The law already provides protection from discrimination based on race, gender, age, religion and disabilities.
Lincoln's religious organizations would be exempt from complying with regulations regarding sexual orientation.
Mayor Chris Beutler has endorsed the proposal.
As in Omaha, a mayoral order already shields Lincoln's gay and lesbian city employees from discrimination.
While Omaha's debate over the measure exposed clear rifts within the city's religious and business communities, it's unclear whether the discussions in Lincoln will occur at the same volume.
“Whenever you tackle an issue that is so controversial and challenging, we're going to have a difference of opinion,” Eskridge said. “Not everybody is going to see this in the same way. I just think Lincoln's ready for this discussion.”
Ron Brown, an assistant Husker football coach who opposed the Omaha measure during a public hearing, said he was “praying about'' whether to speak against the Lincoln version. Brown's testimony generated praise as well as criticism.
Gray, meanwhile, said he planned to testify in support of the Lincoln ordinance.
Opponents have voiced objections that mirror those raised during Omaha's debate. They say such an ordinance is unnecessary and could create undue burdens for business and religious organizations.
Some proponents point to results of a study by University of Nebraska Medical Center researchers last year. Of 129 gay and transgender respondents from the Lincoln area, roughly one-third reported experiencing employment discrimination or unfair treatment from supervisors or co-workers.
It's appropriate for the council to change the ordinance rather than submit it to a public vote, Eskridge said.
“For the community to be involved in this debate, I think, would be divisive,” he said.
Lincoln's Chamber of Commerce and the Lincoln Independent Business Association have taken a neutral position.
Since Omaha's vote, no complaints of gay discrimination have been filed with Omaha's Human Rights and Relations Office.
“The facts are there's no appreciable increase in litigation” because of such measures, Gray said. “The only people that are going to be harmed by this legislation are the people who intended to discriminate in the first place.”
Eskridge said he believes the measure will pass, though he acknowledged some people oppose it.
“This ordinance is simply something that's good for Lincoln,” Eskridge said. “It's time for this community to grow up. We're in a new league now. It's time for us to have all of this protection for our citizens.”
This story contains material from the Associated Press.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1068, firstname.lastname@example.org twitter.com/PerezJr