LINCOLN — Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler is calling for the city's gay rights ordinance to be repealed and for a city charter amendment to be put on the ballot instead.
Beutler made the recommendation Thursday in response to a referendum petition filed by opponents of the ordinance.
Petition organizers have turned in 10,092 signatures, more than four times the number needed to stop the anti-discrimination “fairness ordinance” from taking effect and potentially force a vote of the people.
Beutler said the petition appears to run afoul of Nebraska's single-subject rule for petitions. He said his proposal would avoid that problem while giving people the chance to vote on the matter.
“Allowing the ballot issue to proceed with this fundamental flaw would give voters a false choice and create an unfair election,” he said. “If we initiate litigation and win, then the petitioners are denied the vote. We do not want that result even though it does follow from their own errors.”
The petition seeks to repeal an ordinance that bars discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
City Attorney Rod Confer said the petition covers several subjects included in the ordinance. It deals with two classes of people: one based on sexual orientation, another based on gender identity. It amends the city personnel code. It also provides exemptions for religious organizations.
Voters may support some parts of the ordinance but not others.
He noted that the Nebraska Supreme Court threw out a referendum election in North Platte last year because it had contained multiple subjects.
The single-subject concern does not arise with ordinances passed by the City Council because council members can propose amendments to remove portions of an ordinance with which they disagree, Confer said.
Dave Bydalek of the group Family First, the Nebraska affiliate of Focus on the Family, said he was pleased with the mayor's proposed course of action.
“I'm encouraged that the City Council (and) the mayor understand that the people feel strongly about this and they want to take a vote,” Bydalek said.
He said he will be watching to see how the issue is framed and what the timing is for the vote. Beutler said no decisions have been made yet about whether to call a special election or to include it on the November ballot.
Lincoln's city charter allows the council to repeal an ordinance that is the target of a successful referendum petition or put the matter on the ballot at a special or general election.
Beutler proposed a middle ground, under which the council would repeal the ordinance, then vote for a proposed city charter amendment that would provide the same types of protections against discrimination.
But he also issued an appeal to Lincolnites to support the rights of their fellow citizens.
Councilman Carl Eskridge, who introduced the ordinance, said Lincoln should be a welcoming community and one that is moving forward.
“We need to keep up with Omaha and with those 160 other communities” that have similar protections, he said.
Bydalek took issue with the idea that petition supporters favor discrimination.
He said people have serious concerns about the ramifications of the ordinance.
Proponents of the ordinance are gearing up to defend the measure.
Tyler Richard, president of Outlinc, the group that spearheaded the Lincoln ordinance, said he was disappointed that groups “using misleading information and scare tactics” had convinced people that basic civil rights should be put to a vote. He said Outlinc will work hard to defend those rights.
Dirk Arneson, president of the newly formed Gay Rights Nebraska, said the group's major focus for the coming months will be campaigning for the ordinance.
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