Omaha narrowly approves law to protect gays from discrimination

OMAHA, Neb Tue Mar 13, 2012 9:13pm EDT

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OMAHA, Neb (Reuters) - Omaha on Tuesday narrowly approved anti-discrimination protections for gays and transgender residents, leaving about a dozen of the largest U.S. cities without legal protections based on sexual orientation.

The city council voted 4-3 to add sexual orientation and transgender status to the city's law that already prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, and marital status.

A similar measure failed in Nebraska's largest city a little over a year ago by a 3-3 vote, with one abstention, but one council member, Garry Gernandt, changed his vote this time.

Some 15 other large U.S. cities do not have such protections for gays, including Nashville, Tennessee; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Phoenix, Arizona, advocates of the measure said.

"It's an important and big step for Omaha to take. Is it overdue? Sure. But Omaha usually isn't in the forefront of these issues," said Craig Moody of Voice Omaha, part of the Equal Omaha coalition that has championed the ordinance.

An opponent of the ordinance said it may be challenged, either in court or in the legislature of the mostly conservative state.

Nebraska voters in 2000 overwhelming passed a constitutional amendment that defined marriage as a union between a man and woman, and that also does not allow for same-sex civil unions.

Hannah Buell of the Nebraska Family Council, a group opposed to gay marriage and abortion rights, said Omaha's ordinance represents another case of government infringing on religious liberty.

"It legislates morality in the public sphere. It says your private religious opinion is wrong, when you operate in public," Buell said of the ordinance.

The ordinance exempts churches, but not church-run organizations who will have to operate under its restrictions, said Buell, who spoke out against the ordinance at a Omaha City Council hearing last week.

Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle welcomed passage of the ordinance, saying it reinforced the city's welcoming reputation and was good for business, and said he looked forward to signing the ordinance into law.

"Omaha has been outside the mainstream of what other cities do and the policies and practices of the country's largest corporations," said Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay civil rights advocacy group.

The Equal Omaha Coalition commissioned a survey of 1,000 registered Omaha voters and found that Omaha residents were in favor of the ordinance by a two-to-one margin, Moody said.

"The passage of this kind of ordinance sets down a marker that says discrimination isn't allowed here," Cole-Schwartz said.

(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski and Andrew Stern)

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