The controversial topic of homosexuality drew a crowd at the City Council on Monday.

At least 200 people showed up for the public hearing on an anti-discrimination proposal, labeled the "fairness amendment."

Ninety-nine people signed up to speak.

And the City Council sat patiently through more than seven hours of opinions on whether gay or transgender people should be protected legally from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations in Lincoln.

If the council approves the amendment next week when it is expected to vote, Lincoln and Omaha will have expanded civil rights protection to two new classes, based on sexual orientation and gender identification.

The protection is necessary because there is real discrimination, supporters said, citing statistics and examples.

Twenty-seven percent of the 770 Nebraskans participating in a 2011 online survey had experienced some form of discrimination in the workplace in the last five years because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, supporters said.

"I have witnessed the struggles of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people forced to live double lives because their livelihood depends upon them keeping a secret," said the Rev. Nancy Erickson, associate pastor at First-Plymouth Congregational Church.

"This takes a toll on the human spirit and over time can be devastating," she said.

But opponents, who believe that homosexual behavior is a sin, said the measure will require them to abandon their faith at the doorstep of their church.

This amendment is about much more than just gender identity and discrimination issues, said Dave Gehrls, with an Omaha-based ministry, Christ For The City International.

The amendment discriminates against people of faith "who cannot live their faith in their businesses," he said.

"I do not hate homosexuals or anyone else for that matter. Even though I believe the behavior of homosexuals is wrong, I love them as a child of God," said Lincoln businessman Bob Bennie.

But Bennie said he should have the right to fire someone whose behavior is offensive to employees or customers.

An employee who picks his nose, uses foul language or passes gas on purpose might be acceptable on a construction crew "but not in my office."

"As a Christian business owner, I should have the right to hire and fire who I want," he said.

People should be judged at work by their performance, not their sexual orientation or gender identity, said Tyler Richard, executive director of OutLinc, a local advocacy group active in promoting the proposal.

"The measure has nothing to do with bathrooms and nothing to do with health care benefits," he said, about two claims made by opponents.

The amendment specifically does not require employers to provide family benefits to everyone.

And City Attorney Rod Confer said the fear that men would be able to harass women and girls in bathrooms was unfounded.

Rather, common sense would dictate, he said.

If a transgender person dressed as a woman goes into a woman's restroom, and into a stall, that would be permissible under this ordinance.

But if a person goes into a restroom and creates a disturbance, that would be a violation -- disturbing the peace, he said.

Business owners do have a right to prohibit disruptive conduct, he said.

Speakers also disagreed about whether homosexuality was a choice or an unchangeable part of a person's nature.

Homosexuality is rather like left-handedness, occurring in a small but stable portion of the population. It is a natural phenomenon, said Clay Farris Naff of Lincoln, a science and religion blogger for the Huffington Post.

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There are religious people who sincerely believe that the Bible says homosexuality is a sin. "I regret that they are deeply mistaken in this," he said.

But Gordon Opp, who said he moved from homosexual feelings and behavior to a long-term marriage to a "wonderful woman" because he could not reconcile his homosexuality with his Christianity, says choice plays a role. 

"I choose to confirm my life to the will of God. It was an arduous journey."

This amendment goes too far, he said. "Instead of protecting a class that can be clearly defined, it attempts to control how I think about someone's behavior.

"The real goal is to change people's minds about how they feel about homosexuality," he said.

Public Safety Director and former police chief Tom Casady said this kind of an ordinance will help moderate vicious behavior toward gay people.

It helps define the "limits of behavior this community finds tolerable," said Casady who was speaking as a private citizen, not a city employee.

He pointed to Lincoln's 34 reported hate crimes in the last five years where the person was targeted because of his or her perceived sexual preference or gender identity. This is just the tip of the iceberg, Casady said.

Casady described the 1993 beating and murder of Harold Grover, selected because he was gay.

"I believe that this ordinance is one very small step toward making Lincoln infertile ground for the attitudes that nurture the mindset of these murderers and for all those whose own moral conscience is so weak that they judge people on their characteristics rather than their character," he said.

But opponent Steve May said the amendment is being used to convince people "this is normal behavior."

These are Lincolnites who don't consider themselves religious but they "don't care if we are the only city in the Big Ten without this law," he said.

"They don't want to be the mecca for all the gay people who would come here and act out their gay lifestyle."

 

Reach Nancy Hicks at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com.

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