An attempt to repeal Omaha's legal protections for gay and transgender residents is under way, a move that could inject the contentious issue into next year's city election.
A group calling itself the Omaha Liberty Project filed a petition request with the City of Omaha this week, seeking to put the city's expanded anti-discrimination protections to a public vote.
City legal officials are reviewing the proposed petition, a step that could be completed early next week.
When approved, the petition's language then would be sent to the Douglas County Election Commissioner's Office, city legal officials said. Once the petition is officially launched, the group would have 30 days to collect enough signatures.
The sign-up process would likely begin this fall.
It's unclear exactly how many signatures the group would need to advance the proposal to a public vote.
Patrick Bonnett, executive director of the Omaha Liberty Project, said the group would issue a statement on the petition initiative once the legal review was complete.
Besides Bonnett, a local Tea Party organizer, the group's members include Femi Awodele — a north Omaha community leader and executive director of Christian Couples Fellowship International.
“This group, whoever it is, must seem to think discrimination against some people is OK,” said City Councilman Ben Gray, who proposed the change to city ordinances.
Talk of legal challenges or petition drives to repeal protections for gay and transgender residents quickly surfaced after a packed room watched the Omaha City Council narrowly approve the anti-discrimination measure in March.
If petition organizers gather enough signatures, the council will have the option to enact or reject a petition-led proposal within 30 days of receiving it. Should the council not enact the proposal, it would go to a public vote during the next scheduled city election.
The council's 4-3 vote gave lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Omaha the ability to file complaints with the city's Human Rights and Relations Department if they were fired from a job because of their orientation, suffered other workplace discrimination or were somehow refused a public accommodation.
Religious organizations are exempt from the regulations.
Since the measure was approved, the city has received no complaints alleging discrimination against LGBT residents. But debate on the topic exposed divisions within the business and religious communities.
Opponents, many of them representing local church congregations, said protection for gay and transgender residents would create unnecessary regulations that could be addressed voluntarily by the business community.
Proponents said the ordinance was needed to address discrimination against the LGBT community, provide equal protection under the law for all residents and show that Omaha is a welcoming place to all.
The controversy spread beyond Omaha.
The City of Lincoln passed a similar ordinance, and a petition drive there gathered enough signatures to call for repeal.
But Lincoln officials declined to put a vote on the ordinance on the fall ballot, though it could still appear on a future ballot.
“We were successful in Lincoln because people wanted to cast their vote on it,” said Al Riskowski, executive director of the Nebraska Family Council and an opponent of both measures.
Riskowski said many petition signers said they weren't sure how they would vote on the ordinance. But he said people realized Lincoln's ordinance “had such a wide range of complications and consequences for businesses, churches and individuals.”
A poll commissioned by a local group of gay rights supporters in March indicated that a majority of registered Omaha voters favored legal protection against discrimination for LGBT residents.
The survey found 60 percent of voters citywide favored ordinances to prohibit discrimination against gay and transgender residents, while approximately 25 percent opposed them.
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