10,000 signatures gathered in fight over Nebraska anti-bias ordinance

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, June 2 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

LINCOLN, Neb. — A petition drive to force a vote on Lincoln's anti-discrimination rule for gay and transgendered people has garnered more than 10,000 signatures, four times the number needed to place the issue on the ballot, organizers said.

Family First and the Nebraska Family Council announced Tuesday that they submitted 10,092 signatures before the filing deadline. Roughly 2,500 signatures were needed from registered voters in Lincoln.

City officials in Lincoln, the state's second-largest city, have said they'll need one to two weeks to verify signatures.

The groups tapped a network of 310 volunteer petition circulators in the days after a vote by the Lincoln City Council.

Approved earlier this month, the city ordinance adds sexual orientation and gender preference to a list of factors that are legally protected against discrimination for matters that involve housing, employment and public accommodations.

The city's charter requires the council to either repeal the ordinance — which appears unlikely, given the 5-0 vote to enact it — or place the issue to a referendum that would let Lincoln voters decide whether it should go in to effect.

The vote could take place in a special election called by the city or in November's general election.

When the city council approved the measure on May 14, two members abstained. City spokeswoman Diane Gonzalez said officials were "still looking at all the options" and would release more details at a news conference Thursday.

Supporters argue that the measure is needed to protect the civil rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals. Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler has called the ordinance a basic matter of fairness and invoked the state motto, "Equality before the law."

Opponents claim that any change to the city's charter requires direct voter approval.

The Omaha City Council narrowly approved an ordinance in March that bans employers, job-training programs, labor groups and other organizations from discriminating based on sexual orientation. The measure included exemptions for religious organizations.

The Nebraska Attorney General's office, headed by Republican Jon Bruning, said in a legal opinion this month that cities can't adopt such ordinances because no such protections exist in state law. Gov. Dave Heineman has also said voters should get to decide on Omaha and Lincoln's ordinances.

The attorney general's opinion said voters have the power to extend anti-discrimination protections to those not covered by state law, but city governments cannot. Critics have said the opinion would not stand up in court.

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