Local ministers are boosting an effort to send an Omaha gay rights measure to the ballot box.
A group of Omaha churches is helping lead a petition drive to place legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in voters' hands next spring. It is a direct push of religion into politics — one that asks the public to wipe away expanded anti-discrimination protections that the City Council approved in March.
Some churches involved in the effort put the call to sign the petition more directly than others; approaches range from reminders to sign petitions after Sunday services to one pastor's 39-minute sermon urging congregants to demonstrate their faith by signing their names.
But the step into city politics reflects a similar perspective from some churches: that the ordinance limits their right to express their Christian views.
“I think from time to time the people of God are called to resist their government at key crossroads, and I'm convinced that we stand at one of those crossroads right now in our city,” the Rev. Mark Ashton, lead pastor of Christ Community Church, said in a sermon last Sunday.
“Every signature makes a difference in the future of our city,” he said later. “I'd encourage every registered voter who lives within the City of Omaha and follows Jesus to sign your name.”
Councilman Ben Gray, sponsor of the gay protection ordinance, said the repeal effort undermines residents' civil liberties.
“What's being attempted here is to push a certain issue of religion on people that ought to be unacceptable to all of us who believe in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” he said.
“We cherish religious freedom. We don't turn people away because they're atheist or agnostic or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist. If we're trying to force a certain brand of religion on people, then I think everyone ought to have a problem with that.”
Since the measure was approved on a 4-3 vote, the city has received no complaints alleging discrimination against LGBT people.
Omaha's gay rights debate comes at a time when public opinion on gay marriage appears to be shifting. The World-Herald Poll recently found most Nebraskans now favor legal recognition of same-sex unions, while a growing share of Omahans supports gay marriage instead of civil unions.
But the debate over Omaha's ordinance has exposed divisions within the religious community.
Religious leaders who supported the city's expanded anti-discrimination protections promise a competing get-out-the-vote effort if the matter were to get onto the ballot.
“How can someone — in the name of Christ, who offered love and acceptance and a message of grace — then deny others the basic right to employment and not to be discriminated against?” said the Rev. Jane Florence, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church and an opponent of the repeal effort.
A number of other churches have supported the expanded ordinance.
The Nebraska Heritage Coalition, comprising 242 area religious representatives, disagrees. Members signed a proclamation that condemns violence against gay and transgender residents but also condemns “homosexual activity.”
This spring's council 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 those regulations, but some Christian leaders say that does nothing to protect Christian employees or businesses.
The expanded ordinance, the coalition said in a February letter to the council, would “force many of our congregants who own businesses to give special treatment to those who make certain sexual choices.”
“This ordinance makes it a crime to publicly hold a Christian viewpoint on sexual morality in the marketplace environment,” Ashton, a Heritage Coalition sponsor, said in last week's sermon.
Members and supporters of the Heritage Coalition helped found the Omaha Liberty Project to address local public policy matters such as same-sex marriage or expanded anti-discrimination laws. The Omaha Liberty Project sponsored the petition request on repealing the city's expanded protections.
Omaha Archbishop George Lucas, in a letter to Omaha Catholic parishes, encouraged pastors to use their discretion to determine whether to involve themselves or parishioners in the petition effort.
“Examples of your involvement may include speaking about the issue in your parish, giving petitioners access to your parish events, scheduling information nights at your parish to discuss the issue, providing informational handouts to your parishioners, etc.,” Lucas wrote.
But the archbishop cautioned pastors against disrupting liturgies or distracting “from the important moral issues at stake in national and state elections this fall.”
“Do not make your worship space into a haven for signature gathering,” is how Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the archdiocese, explained part of Lucas' position. “It's not to be a center for political activity. It's worship space."
The Rev. Curt Dodd, senior pastor at Westside Church, said he has broached the subject with his more than 4,000-member congregation. But while Dodd's sermons make it clear the church is opposed to homosexuality, he hasn't made the city ordinance a focal point of any sermon.
Last week, at the end of the regular Sunday worship service, Dodd announced that petitions had been placed in a church meeting room and that church members could stop by to sign on their way out. He plans to do the same today and next Sunday, but said the issue “won't claim our attention.”
“This is not something we pass the plate for, not something that is the agenda of our church, but rather is a response that we feel like God's people should be able to wrestle with,” he said.
Omaha Trinity Hope Foursquare Church, near North 42nd Street and Redman Avenue, is taking a similar approach.
James Patterson, the senior pastor, said he has encouraged members to be a part of the petition effort. He said it's on par with any of the other big topics that come up on Sunday, ranging from street violence to challenging family relationships.
“If you look historically, churches have been active as to the moral issues of the day,” he said. “Today shouldn't be any different.”
Ashton told his congregation that other churches in the city, including Westside Church, Lifegate Church and King of Kings Lutheran Church, are also working to get signatures on petitions. Christ Community Church has a weekly attendance of about 3,500 people.
Ashton, through a church spokeswoman, declined to comment for this article, as did the Rev. Mark Zehnder, King of Kings' senior pastor.
Several other churches with representatives who signed the Heritage Coalition proclamation also did not return calls and messages seeking comment, including Lifegate Church and Salem Baptist Church.
Roughly 11,400 signatures are required to put the measure before voters. If petition organizers gather enough signatures, the proposal will be forwarded to the City Council, which has the authority to enact or reject the proposal within 30 days of receiving it. The proposal will then be put to a public vote if the council does not enact it.
Religious-led civic activity has emerged on issues such as slavery, the death penalty, abortion and same-sex marriage, said Greg Petrow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“You have to realize there's not only a moral dimension to this,” Petrow said of the city's latest debate over gay rights. “There is a real ideological belief that the role of government regulation in the economy should be very minimal. … That's part of what's going on here, too.”
If social conservatives can mobilize amid the generally low voter turnout rates of local elections, Petrow said, they could have an effect on next spring's city races.
The religious community's incursion into local politics does raise some legal questions. Religious groups are prohibited from engaging in some political activities if they want to maintain their nonprofit standing with the Internal Revenue Service.
Such groups can't actively campaign for or against a particular candidate, but they can lobby on behalf of a particular issue, according to a report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Leading petition drives or other similar activities would put a church's tax-exempt status at risk only if it amounted to a “substantial” proportion of its total activities during a particular year, according to the IRS.
In his sermon, Ashton said his church rarely gets involved in local politics. He added that his church supports the employment of gay people and is opposed to “bigotry, hatred and violence.”
But Ashton urged church members to push back against an ordinance he believes is “not about minority, but about morality.” He said the law would limit the freedom of speech of church members who wanted to speak in opposition to homosexuality or post Bible verses in the workplace.
Doing so, he said, could make a business owner or employee the subject of a hostile work environment claim — or land them in bigger legal trouble.
“The goal, therefore, is not economic equality but legitimating certain sexual behaviors in our culture and making it illegal to disagree with this view in the public arena,” he said.
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