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LGBT rights not up for vote

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Posted: Friday, February 1, 2013 8:14 am

The fate of Omaha's legal protections for gay and transgender residents won't be placed into voters' hands this spring.

A church-led effort to repeal the ordinance did not gather enough signatures in time to launch a referendum immediately, organizers said Thursday.

The Omaha Liberty Project, sponsor of the petition effort, needed to submit roughly 11,400 valid resident signatures to the city today to potentially force a vote in May's general election.

The group's volunteer petition circulators led months of signature gathering and community-organizing efforts, its leader said, but didn't collect enough signatures to account for potentially ineligible entries. The group has already missed a deadline to place the issue on the primary ballot.

"We've got to be pretty darn close to the number we need," said Patrick Bonnett, the group's executive director and a member of the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District board.

"Darn close, but we just didn't get it."

The unsuccessful effort alters the tenor of this year's city election by keeping a divisive social issue off the ballot.

The City Council once rejected such protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents before revisiting the issue last spring. Tensions spiked during a marathon public hearing, punctuated by local celebrities such as Husker football assistant coach Ron Brown and filmmaker Alexander Payne.

Talk of a petition drive to overturn the ordinance bubbled up almost immediately after the council's 4-3 vote last March to approve it. Supporters planned a competing get-out-the-vote effort.

Nationally, referendums on hot-button items can drive voter turnout, said Randall Adkins, head of the political science department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

"The social issues are pretty well-known to drive up conservative, therefore Republican, turnout," he said. "In a close election, it could influence the outcome of an election."

The same effect could have been seen in Omaha, Adkins said. "It's an issue that people have heard about in the news; a lot of people who don't normally pay attention to politics have been paying attention to this issue," he said of the LGBT referendum.

Another UNO political science professor, Gregory Petrow, said that has happened in high-profile races, including the 2004 presidential election. That year, several states had ballot initiatives related to gay marriage. Petrow said evidence suggests those issues helped tip voter turnout in favor of President George W. Bush.

The failure of the current petition drive, however, doesn't mean its momentum is lost.

Petrow said petition drives don't often fall short because of a lack of people willing to sign. Successful efforts, though, typically require paid signature gatherers and highly organized signature drives, rather than less structured, grassroots campaigns.

"You wouldn't want to conclude anything about what this says on the state of public opinion on the issue," he said.

Bonnett said the Liberty Project's campaign got a late start and had to spend much of the holidays bringing voters up to speed on the ordinance.

"We were very, very shocked at how few people were in tune with the issue," he said.

The law, which went into effect last spring, gives gay and transgender residents the ability to file complaints with the city's Human Rights and Relations Department if they believe they were fired from a job because of their sexual orientation, suffered other workplace discrimination or were refused a public accommodation. Employers could be subject to civil penalties if found culpable. Religious organizations are exempt from the regulations.

Six complaints have been submitted to date, said City Human Resources Director Richard O'Gara. One complaint has been investigated and dismissed, O'Gara said, while the rest are being scrutinized under a lengthy investigative process.

"It just takes time," O'Gara said.

Organizers intend to continue the effort to get the issue on the ballot.

Their petition drive seeks adoption of an ordinance to remove sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes within the City of Omaha and for City of Omaha contracts.

With enough signatures, the proposal would be forwarded to the City Council, which has the authority to enact or reject the proposal within 30 days of receiving it. It would go to a public vote if the council didn't act.

If organizers gather enough names, they could turn in ballots at a later date. But they'd likely have to wait until the next election: the 2014 primary.

The number of signatures required to get the issue on the ballot then would depend on voter turnout for this year's general city election -- the requirement is 15 percent of the turnout in the most recent election.

"We're proud of our petition drive," Bonnett said.

"The city has plenty of time to have the discussion. ... We're looking forward to continuing the whole conversation."

Besides Bonnett, the group's members and supporters include Femi Awodele -- a north Omaha community leader and executive director of Christian Couples Fellowship International -- and the Heritage Coalition.

That coalition, a group of more than 200 local clergy, issued a proclamation earlier this year opposing the expansion of the city's anti-discrimination laws to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.

A number of other churches have supported the ordinance.

The Rev. Jane Florence of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, one supporter of the law, said she welcomed the news.

"This was a very small step," she said of the council's vote.

"This was strictly about employment, and there remains a lot of discrimination in many different areas and avenues of fair housing, of foster parenting and adoption rights," she said.

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