Nebraska conservatives are scrambling to block a Lincoln City Council proposal that would allow biological men who identify as female to use women’s facilities. Businesses and organizations unwilling to abide by the new “gender identity” rules could face fines.
The Nebraska Family Alliance, a nonprofit based in Lincoln, has until Monday to submit 4,137 signatures to stop enforcement of the city’s newly updated Title 11, the portion of the municipal code that covers equal opportunity.
The organization said it was on track Thursday to hit that target with more than 250 volunteers canvassing the city door-to-door since Feb. 15, the day after the city council unanimously passed the ordinance updates.
Council members say the expanded “fairness ordinance” is needed to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but critics say the ordinance goes well beyond protection and could be used to punish businesses or organizations that ascribe to more traditional beliefs.
“Every person should be treated with dignity and respect, but this ordinance isn’t about fairness, despite its title. It’s about ideology and silencing anyone who disagrees with those currently in political power,” said Nate Grasz, the Nebraska Family Alliance’s policy director.
Public businesses and private schools are obliged under the new law to let men who self-identify as female have access to women’s locker rooms, bathrooms and dressing rooms.
Supporters of the bill have denied reports that it also covers churches and youth sports leagues, pointing out that the ordinance maintains a religious exemption.
“You should be able to get a job, stay employed, find housing, and go to the movies, go out to eat, go to the grocery store,” Councilwoman Sändra Washington, the ordinance’s sponsor, told the Lincoln Journal Star on Jan. 27, adding that she thinks “the time is right” for the change.
But Mr. Grasz said she is only partly correct about the religious exemption.
“There’s an exemption in the ordinance for religious employers to hire and fire according to their beliefs, but there’s nothing that would exempt a church or youth sports league from being a place of public accommodation that must abide by the new definition of sexual harassment,” he said.
The ordinance also empowers the nine-member Lincoln Commission on Human Rights, appointed by the mayor, to hold public hearings on any complaints about “verbal or physical conduct” and fine violators who refuse to cooperate. Penalties for offenses that “have the effect of discrimination” run up to $10,000 for a first offense, $25,000 for a second and $50,000 for each repeated offense.
“The ordinance’s broad definition of sexual harassment makes you liable or guilty of harassment if your speech has ‘the effect’ of creating a hostile environment,” Mr. Grasz said. “So if I don’t use a person’s preferred pronouns, or express a conservative Christian view of marriage or human sexuality that offends someone or interferes with their work performance, I might be liable for a discriminatory act.”
Local news station KOLN reported on Feb. 14 that Ms. Washington, one of three openly gay members of the seven-person city council, acknowledged that opinions were split during a public hearing one week before the vote.
“I heard the fear in a lot of the opposition statements I know they’re concerned,” Ms. Washington said. “But I know that those concerns are unfounded and our community is not going to be made unsafe because of this title.”
Councilwoman Jane Raybould said she expects the ordinance to help businesses in the state’s capital.
“Our Chamber of Commerce and young professionals have testified that this is essential for us to attract new businesses and retain our young people,” Ms. Raybould said.
The ordinance also adds anti-discrimination protections for military service members, veterans, people of tribal origin and divorced or separated spouses.
Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird, a Democrat, has called the bill a priority for her administration and is expected to sign it into law within a 15-day deadline.
But within 15 days of a bill passing the city council, a petition signed by 4% of participating voters in the previous gubernatorial election can also stop the law.
If successful, the Nebraska Family Alliance’s petition will give the council two options: repeal the bill or put it on the ballot for voters to decide.
“We want it on the ballot so the city council can let the people decide this issue,” said Mr. Grasz, the alliance’s policy director. “The petition response has been encouraging. People are paying attention and they’re pushing back.”
In 2012, more than 10,000 people signed a petition to stop an earlier version of the ordinance, but the city council opted to let it lie dormant rather than rescind or put it on the ballot.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, urged Lincoln voters in a statement this week to sign the petition protesting the updates.
“It puts girls at risk by allowing men into girls’ bathrooms. It applies to private schools and not to public schools. It prevents parents from helping their kids who are experiencing gender dysphoria,” Mr. Ricketts said. “And it threatens to bankrupt families who instill traditional values on their children — anyone who disagrees could get fined up to $50,000.”