LINCOLN — Opponents are marshaling an effort to stop Lincoln's new gay civil rights ordinance before it can take effect.
The Lincoln City Council voted 5-0 Monday to pass the ordinance, which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Mayor Chris Beutler plans to sign it.
“Prejudice and discrimination are never right in this city, for any reason,” said council member Carl Eskridge, who introduced the ordinance.
The measure takes effect in 15 days, unless foes gather enough signatures on a referendum petition to force a public vote.
That's just what they intend to do, said the Rev. Al Riskowski, executive director of the Nebraska Family Council.
To put the measure on hold, opponents must collect about 2,500 signatures from registered voters — 4 percent of Lincoln voters who participated in the last governor's election — before the measure takes effect.
Riskowski said referendum workers will circulate petitions at a number of the city's major churches this weekend. He said he expects to easily gather sufficient signatures to block the ordinance.
Council members Adam Hornung and Jon Camp, the only Republicans on Lincoln's seven-member council, abstained from Monday's vote.
Citing an opinion from Attorney General Jon Bruning earlier this month, they said that the City Council lacks authority to pass the ordinance and that the city's charter requires a vote of the people.
Both men are lawyers. Hornung said his oath as a lawyer requires him to adhere to the attorney general's opinion.
“The Attorney General's Office, for right or for wrong, has the authority to enforce the laws of the state of the Nebraska,” Hornung said. “A lot of attorneys can issue opinions, but some opinions mean more than others.”
Camp said he agreed with Hornung's analysis.
Other members, however, said the council had not only the authority but also an obligation to enact the ordinance.
“We have a responsibility to vote on this ordinance,” said DiAnna Schimek.
She and other council members said they were persuaded by a legal opinion of Lincoln City Attorney Rod Confer, which concluded that Lincoln did have authority under its charter and state law to enact civil rights protections beyond those enumerated in state law.
A seven-hour hearing last week attracted more than 70 people who wanted to weigh in on the issue. Council members said they had received stacks of emails, letters and phone messages.
Those testifying debated religious morality and whether sexual orientation and gender identity are immutable traits, but council members said they could pass the ordinance without deciding those issues.
“The danger is to make this a referendum on lifestyle,” said council member Doug Emery. “At the end of the day, this is about whether you can be hired or not hired, fired or not fired, or denied housing based on who you live with.”
The vote took place just days after President Barack Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage.
After the council vote, advocates for the ordinance rejoiced outside the council chambers.
J. Eileen Durgin-Clinchard, the first president of Lincoln's chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, wiped away tears as she talked about her son, a Vietnam veteran who didn't come out as gay until he moved away from Lincoln. He died in 1999.
In 1982, she recalled, Lincoln voters soundly rejected an ordinance that would have protected gay residents from discrimination.
“There's been a lot of talk about homosexual ‘practices,'” she said, referring to opponents' testimony last week. “The practices are the same, whether you're heterosexual or homosexual. You love your loved ones. You buy your house. You mow your lawn. You go to work.”
It took two years for a similar ordinance to obtain majority support from the Omaha City Council, which voted 4-3 on March 13 to adopt an ordinance. That vote fell along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed to the measure.
In 2010, the proposed ordinance failed in a 3-3 tie, with Councilman Franklin Thompson, a Republican, abstaining.
The Bruning opinion was released after the Omaha measure took effect. Riskowski said he believed that helped foster a groundswell among Lincoln opponents that the measure ought to go on the ballot.
Ordinance supporters say it is a mistake to put a minority-rights measure to a majority vote.
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