Gov. Dave Heineman will not comment on guidelines that prohibit Health and Human Services System diversity teams from providing programs about gay and lesbian issues.
The governor will not say whether he agrees — or disagrees — with the policy, his spokeswoman said Tuesday.
But some members of HHS diversity teams in Omaha and Lincoln recently resigned after administrators prevented programs that included discussion of gay and lesbian issues.
In Omaha, at least 10 of 24 team members quit when administrators stopped a program and panel focusing on gay and lesbian issues.
One of the invited speakers said the administration first stopped a daylong training and then said the group could not host a shorter program offered after work hours.
Committee members were told they could not discuss gay, lesbian and transgendered issues on state time, said Betty Dorr, past president of Omaha PFLAG, a group representing parents, family and friends of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons.
“This is just another episode of the state denying an opportunity for stories to be told by the wonderful gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people we have in our community, in Nebraska,” Dorr said.
More than half the members of the Lincoln diversity team resigned after administrators said they had to rescind an invitation to a parent involved in a same-sex partnership who was part of a forum on diverse families.
HHS CEO Chris Peterson says the agency’s diversity teams must limit topics to the protected classes in federal law, which does not include homosexuals.
In response to a request for a short interview with Heineman on the diversity controversy, the governor’s chief spokesperson said: “I don’t think that is going to happen.”
“I don’t think the governor is interested in commenting,” spokeswoman Jen Rae Hein said. “The governor believes the director is handling it appropriately.”
Hein was also unwilling to say whether Heineman agreed or disagreed with the policy.
“The governor does not want to interject himself into this discussion,” she said repeatedly, offering a one-note answer to a number of questions about the governor’s attitude on the issue.
“He is not going to interject himself into this discussion.”
Late last week when the Lincoln controversy became public, Peterson took responsibility for the guideline limiting diversity topics to the groups covered by federal law, including race, religion, national origin, color, age, sex and disability.
Tuesday, agency spokeswoman Kathie Osterman reaffirmed that Peterson has not been directed by the governor or his staff to limit the diversity program topics.
In answer to questions, Peterson has said the limitation does not apply to employee hiring and promotion decisions.
The controversy with the Omaha and Lincoln diversity committees occurred about the same time, but team members were unaware of what was happening in the other community.
“It was just a fluke,” said Cathy Kingery, who resigned as co-chair of the Lincoln group.
The Omaha forum was intended to give gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Omahans a chance to tell stories and give employees a place to ask questions, Dorr said.
“It makes me very angry that this was canceled,” she said. “Here we go again: Our kids are being looked down on.”
Lincoln members pointed out the policy says the diversity committees are to “recognize, encourage, utilize and value people’s similarities and differences.”
There is nothing in the written policy limiting the discussion to groups protected from discrimination by federal law.
The committees grew out of another employee group that focused on cultural awareness and cultural competency issues, Osterman said.
Employees volunteer to work on the diversity teams, operating in 16 HHS institutions and work areas, Osterman said.
The teams have little or no budget to provide some food or transportation costs, Osterman said.
Employees are also invited — but not required — to attend programs put on by the teams, she said.
Reach Nancy Hicks at 473-7250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.