Lincoln Chamber likely to remain neutral on 'fairness amendment'

2012-04-28T08:00:00Z 2012-05-14T15:34:05Z Lincoln Chamber likely to remain neutral on 'fairness amendment'By NANCY HICKS / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com
April 28, 2012 8:00 am  • 

The Lincoln Chamber of Commerce likely will not be taking a stand on the "fairness amendment" that will give gays and lesbians protection against discrimination in employment, public accommodations and housing in Lincoln.

Councilman Carl Eskridge mentioned the chamber's neutrality during a news conference Friday, the third news conference in a week by fairness amendment supporters.

But the amendment, which provides discrimination protection based on gender identity and sexual orientation, is drawing some criticism.

The amendment carves out exceptions for religious organizations and expressly says that businesses do not have to provide health insurance for domestic partners.

But Lincoln's proposal is more far-reaching than the ordinance passed recently in Omaha that does not apply to housing, according to Al Riskowski, executive director of the Nebraska Family Council.

And the protection for religious groups seems quite weak, he said.

"Just from the calls that we are getting, I would say there is a great concern in Lincoln by business owners, Christian schools and nonprofit groups like the People's City Mission as to how this will affect them," he said.

Eskridge said there likely will be an amendment addressing concerns raised in a letter by the Catholic diocese.

Riskowski's group has asked state Attorney General Jon Bruning to look into potential constitutional issues.

"We have felt that cities do not have the authority to create additional protected classes beyond those in state law," Riskowski said.

Neither Nebraska nor federal law provides discrimination protection to gays and lesbians.

"We have asked the attorney general to verify the fact that Omaha has exceeded their authority and Lincoln is potentially going to do the same," he said.

The city attorney has determined that Lincoln can add additional classes by a council vote, without changing the city charter, Eskridge said.

A 1981 attorney general's opinion offers weak support for the ability of cities to move beyond state law.

Eskridge said he expects people to offer many differing opinions at the May 7 public hearing on the proposal.

Nebraska assistant football coach Ron Brown sparked controversy when he spoke in opposition to the Omaha ordinance.

Brown still is undecided about whether he will speak at the Lincoln hearing, giving the answer he has provided several news outlets: "I'm praying about it."

Eskridge said he has gotten supportive comments from business owners, though some have concerns about additional litigation possible because of adding a new class to the city's anti-discrimination ordinance.

"It is appropriate that large organizations would not take a stand," Eskridge said.

The Chamber staff is recommending a neutral position to the board, said Bruce Bohrer, executive vice president and general counsel for the chamber.

There is just no consensus within the business community, Bohrer said.

The Omaha Chamber first opposed the ordinance change but remained neutral when it came up recently for the second time, Bohrer said.

The Omaha City Council approved adding gender identity and sexual orientation to the city anti-discrimination law a month ago.

Bohrer said chamber staff know there are Lincoln companies that have internal policies to protect employees on the basis of gender identification and sexual orientation.

"We also recognize and think that Lincoln is an inclusive and welcoming place and wants to remain so," he said.

The chamber board usually follows recommendations on these kinds of issues, Bohrer said.

Eskridge also said the Lincoln Independent Business Association was remaining neutral.

But Coby Mach, LIBA president and CEO, said his board has not yet voted on the issue.

Attorneys are still looking at the amendment language, which was available Friday morning.

"At this point, we have not taken any position," he said.

The proposal will be formally introduced Monday, but there will be no public comments until a May 7 hearing. The council is expected to vote on the issue May 14.

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

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