Grand Island City Council Votes No on Civil Protections for LGBT People


Two and a half hours debate came to a head with council voting down the special amendment protecting LGBT people against discrimination. Tuesday night's council meeting was nothing short of passionate. Twenty-two people, including some from outside the city limits, came to speak both in favor and against the amendment.

"Nebraska has long been on the forefront of the most splendid civil rights decisions," said Gail Pemberton, identifying herself as a lesbian. On Tuesday night, the Grand Island City Council had the chance to do it again.

"Chief Broken Bear presented his case before a court in Omaha and he was declared a person under the law…I too would like to be a person under the law," she said.

Although Gail Pemberton is protected as a person, a woman, a senior citizen, she's not protected by her sexual orientation. "I'm 74-years-old," she said. "It's time for me."

The whole gamut of the LGBT debate was discussed. Themes ranged from social stigmas, basic rights, liberties promised under the Constitution to family values, small business regulations, and whether homosexuality is a choice. Pemberton's story was one of a dozen publicly declared and one of the estimated 32,000 LGBT people living in Nebraska right now.

Although two pastors from Grand Island spoke openly in favor of the amendment, sharing the sentiment that ‘God calls his followers to love and not judge,' professed Christians spoke vehemently against it.

One man said that by passing the amendment Grand Island would be supporting something that is immoral under God's law. "Sex between people with the same gender, guys with guys, girls with girls, is totally against God's law," said Dave Olson. He added that homosexuality is a choice that has only recently become popular based on TV shows and propaganda.

One of those pastors countered the man's claims saying "yes, this is a moral issue, the way we treat others is a moral issue."

"That same God created my son, and for whatever reason, created him homosexual," said Lisa Heineman.

The objective of the law would be to protect LGBT people from discrimination, in the same manner race, religion, sex and age are protected.

That didn't sit well with one individual, saying businesses should be allowed to refuse services to those of an opposing lifestyle. He mentioned the analogy of a cook not being able to deny catering for a gay wedding, which he said should be the cook's choice. Under the law, it would not be his choice, just like he could not refuse business to a black couple or Mormon person.

Business owner Ray Absher said the law would have unintentional consequences on small businesses, opening them up for legal battles. Many of the LGBT community would be protected under the other protected classes he said.

But, the majority of those who spoke on Tuesday spoke openly in favor of the amendment calling it a family, civil rights and safety issue. Openly gay Jill Liske-Clark said it's a "family issue," protecting her source of income and protecting her daughters' futures. Another woman said it was time to vote yes, saying she's been waiting 74 years for this discussion and her partner of 24 years to be protected.

"This is an issue that's not about morality, but equality," said Todd Ruhter, a member of the LGBT community. "It's about what I can or can't do under the Constitution given to me."

Council members applauded the courage of the many individuals who came out in support of the amendment, understanding that some could even be denied housing or fired for publicly ‘outing' themselves as current law stood.

After listening to the public comment portion for almost two hours, council began their discussion of the amendment.

Many council members, including Councilman Dugan who brought up the point in last week's meeting, mentioned the legality of the amendment.

Currently there is discussion on whether or not cities can trump state and federal law. Although Sivick said the way the city is organized, interpretation of further defining special classes would most likely be upheld, many still felt uneasy.

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have ratified their constitutions to add sexual orientation as a protected class. Other cities still struggle with the issue, Omaha is facing a recall, and Lincoln recently retracted their amendment.

The word "rushed" and "messy" were used on multiple occasions by council members to describe the amendment and where it stood in relation to Omaha and Lincoln's legal battles over the same issue. Dugan said although he agreed with the idea of taking a stand against discrimination, he could not and would not vote in favor of the amendment solely due to the legality of the issue.

Others, however, cited different reasons for voting no. Councilman Mitch Nickerson said he would be voting no, because voting yes would be supporting a lifestyle he doesn't think his constituents agree with. In fact, he corrected himself saying he "knows majority of Grand Island does not agree with the amendment." He said he feared what an amendment of this sort would do, not wanting to create a safe haven for gays.

There was an amendment to the amendment that would bring the issue to public vote on the next ballot. The council was split evenly, 5-5. Ultimately that left Mayor Vavricek to cast the deciding vote, which could mean the issue would go on his own recall election ballot that is currently in the works. Citing a conflict of interest, Vavricek did not vote allowing the measure failed.

Councilwoman Linna Dee Donaldson made an amendment to the amendment to postpone the issue for 30 days in hopes of creating a more ‘clean' version that would not face the ‘rushed' criticism from the council. Her amendment failed.

The council was then left with the original amendment, which failed in an 8-2 vote. The only members who voted in favor were Councilman Larry Carney and Councilwoman Linna Dee Donaldson.