Diversity committees for Health and Human Services can celebrate food from around the world.

They can bring in Polynesian dancers for a program on Pacific Rim and Asian cultures.

They can talk about Mardi Gras, black history and the Chinese New Year.

But they cannot provide any information that relates to people who are gay.

In fact, state HHS leaders recently ordered a Lincoln-based diversity committee to remove one speaker from an informational forum focusing on family diversity because the woman was in a same-sex partnership.

Forum speakers included a grandmother raising her grandchildren, blind parents and a foster parent — and a parent whose family included three races, adopted foster care children from a previous marriage, a special needs child and same sex parenting.

The team was told to remove the speaker involved in same-sex parenting from the lineup, even though the agency policy statement says the team should promote and encourage the appreciation of human diversity in the workplace and communities served by HHS, said Cathy Kingery, diversity committee co-chairwoman.

The forum was neither condoning nor condemning gay life but simply recognizing its existence and the special circumstances families may encounter, Kingery said in an e-mail description of the issue.

The administration was unwilling to waiver, she said.

HHS administrators say the diversity team strayed from agency guidelines that limit diversity issues to groups protected under federal law.

They include race, religion, national origin, gender and handicaps, but not sexual orientation, said HHS spokeswoman Kathie Osterman.

“All of our programs are tied to state or federal law. This is no different,” she said.

But Kingery said the committee, which serves employees in central administration in Lincoln, didn’t  know about that guideline. The mission statement and goals for diversity committees are broad — to recognize and value all individuals, she said.

She said committee members were aware that previous diversity committees had been told they couldn’t discuss same-sex issues, but they had seen nothing in writing.

Concerned they were being asked to discriminate when their goal was to recognize and encourage appreciation of diversity, 11 of 18 committee members, including the two co-chairmen, resigned, she said.

After reporters began inquiring on Friday about the guidelines limiting diversity issues, HHS system CEO Chris Peterson said she wanted to meet with committee members.

Peterson said she didn’t know if she would lift the restrictions, but she wants to talk with them about what they see as the role of the diversity committees.  

“I’m open to their expectations, to see if that fits in with our diversity policy,” she said.

Kingery said she and others would be happy to talk with Peterson, and she might be willing to rejoin the group if members had the right to discuss any diversity issue.

“But I’m not willing to just give lip service to diversity. We can’t blatantly discriminate against one group of people just because the administration doesn’t want us to acknowledge they exist.”

In answer to questions, Peterson said the guideline was not established to avoid political controversy but to provide a way of managing programs. She also said the agency does not discriminate against employees because they are gay,

The guideline, established in 2002, about the same time the HHS system was formed, applies to 16 diversity teams operating in HHS workplaces across the state, she said.

The committees, made up of volunteer employees and started in 1995, “have done wonderful programs and really enhanced employees’ understanding of different issues,” Osterman said.

HHS also has a long-standing administrative memorandum that says the agency won’t place children with unrelated, unmarried adults. It was put into place in 1995 by then-Gov. Ben Nelson.

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

Outbrain