LINCOLN — The hours passed and the testifiers kept coming.
The Lincoln City Council heard from more than 70 people in a 6½-hour marathon hearing Monday night expressing their strong feelings — pro and con — about a proposed ordinance that would protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.
Proponents of the ordinance described it as a matter of fairness, of gays and lesbians being able to live openly and to acknowledge their loved ones without fear of losing their jobs.
“You have an opportunity before you to not just make Lincoln more welcoming for gay and transgender people, but also to improve our economy and business culture,” said Tyler Richard, president of Outlinc, the organization that spearheaded Lincoln’s ordinance.
“People should be judged at work by their performance, not their sexual orientation or gender identity,” he said.
But opponents said the ordinance would impinge upon their religious freedoms by requiring them to accept behavior they consider immoral.
“Our faith is something that’s been the moral code for four thousand years,” said the Rev. Chris Kubat, director of Catholic Social Services.
“Now” — he snapped his fingers — “you’re going to force us to do something that’s against our faith. Last year we assisted more than 28,000 people. Most weren’t Catholics. If people are hungry or naked or thirsty, I’m going to help them. I don’t care who they are or if they’re gay, but don’t force me to cooperate with behaviors against our faith.”
Kubat said the church’s opposition to the proposal would be “mitigated” by an amendment that creates an exemption for religious organizations, but he said the church would prefer to see a conscience clause exempting individuals based upon their sincerely held religious beliefs.
Public Safety Director Tom Casady took vacation time to testify in favor of the ordinance.
“Lincoln is a comparatively tolerant city,” he said. “Nonetheless, we are not without problems.”
He said 34 hate crimes against gays and transgender people — half of them assaults — have been reported during the past five years. In 1993, two men lured a gay man from a bar to Branched Oak Lake, where they beat him and fatally stabbed him.
Casady, the former police chief, said he looks at the ordinance as a step toward preventing more serious crimes.
“I subscribe to the broken windows theory of crime — that if you take care of the small stuff, you prevent the big stuff,” he said. “By outlawing minor forms of intolerance and prejudice, you’re making sure more serious forms aren’t going to come.”
Several opponents, however, said they feared the ordinances would allow cross-dressing men to enter public restrooms and locker rooms to prey upon women and children.
Rod Confer, the Lincoln city attorney, however, dismissed such concerns as “foolishness.” He said ordinance supporters have researched that question and have been unable to find a single instance of cross-dressing predators lurking in restrooms.
Tobias Pace of Lincoln objected to opponents characterizing the matter as opposing homosexual behavior, not homosexual people.
He said that would be like saying you support heterosexual people but don’t allow them to display pictures of their loved ones at work.
Bob Bennie of Lincoln, however, said such an ordinance would interfere with his ability to run his business in accordance with his religious beliefs.
“As a Christian business owner, I have a right to hire or fire employees based on my beliefs,” he said. “It is my business.”
City Council members heard from many civic and religious leaders, members of the gay and lesbian community and others during the hearing.
Though Husker Assistant Coach Ron Brown did not attend the meeting, a representative of his ministry, FreedMen Nebraska, testified against the ordinance.
Brown’s fiery testimony against a similar ordinance this spring in Omaha created controversy. Some national columnists criticized him for using his prominence as a Nebraska coach — Brown listed NU’s Memorial Stadium as his address — to fight the proposal. The Omaha City Council passed the ordinance by a narrow margin in March.
Lisa Weeks said that although the ordinance includes an exemption for religious organizations, it isn’t clearly defined. She is concerned that the FreedMen ministry, which is aimed toward boys and men, could run afoul of the ordinance because it isn’t housed in a church and rents Lincoln’s Pershing Center for some of its events.
The City Council is expected to vote on the ordinance at its May 14 meeting.
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