‘Equity ordinance’ puts city’s Human Rights Commission in spotlight | local government

The Lincoln Commission on Human Rights is at the center of a growing firestorm.

The City Council last week passed a sweeping revision to Title 11 – the part of the city code dealing with equal opportunity – which includes adding gender identity, sexual orientation and military personnel into as protected classes.

The next day, the opponents filed a referendum request and have 15 days to collect 4,137 signatures to prevent the promulgation of the ordinance. If they collect the required number of signatures, the city council can either repeal it or let voters decide.

The Nebraska Family Alliance, which filed the petition and says it has trained more than 260 people to collect signatures, argues that the ordinance will expose businesses to heavy fines for expressing their religious beliefs about marriage and sexuality, and focuses on fears related to allowing access to toilets based on gender identity.

Supporters say that because a January 2020 Supreme Court ruling in a landmark civil rights case ensured such protections, it’s important the city aligns its code with federal law for clarity, so the city ​​is not wasting federal funds, and because stating these protections in the city code is the right thing to do.

People also read…

The new ordinance – the second time in a decade that the council has passed a so-called “equity ordinance” to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity – is broader than the first and provides numerous updates to the entire code.

Opponents in 2012 secured enough signatures to put the ordinance to a vote, but the council never did. He also didn’t overturn the order, so it has remained in limbo so far – a point pointed out by naysayers.

This time around, at the center of the debate is the Lincoln Commission on Human Rights, a city agency created a year before the federal Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, when President John F. Kennedy called on cities to form human rights councils.

The city charter authorized the creation of the commission, which is tasked with investigating allegations of discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations.

Today, there’s a lot of confusion about what that means, commission director Mindy Rush Chipman said.

“A lot of testimony in opposition (to city council) has clarified the number of misconceptions around what the commission can and cannot do,” she said.

For one, its jurisdiction extends only to city limits and specifically excludes municipal, county, state and federal agencies and – in the new version – clarifies that political subdivisions are also excluded.

This means the commission cannot investigate allegations related to places such as public schools, prisons or within city departments or agencies, she said.

Churches generally do not fall under public housing laws, and municipal ordinances generally exempt religious organizations, as well as private clubs not open to the public. Employers with fewer than four employees are also exempt.

In cases before the commission, the goal is to help both sides reach a resolution, not impose penalties or fines, Rush Chipman said.

“We’re trying to come to this mutually beneficial resolution early on – how to preserve the relationship so that both parties feel comfortable,” she said. “Our goal is to raise awareness.

The commission is an easy and accessible way for people who feel they’ve been wronged to get answers, Rush Chipman said, without hiring a lawyer or spending money. People with employment allegations usually have to exhaust administrative avenues — such as the commission — before they can take legal action, she said.

The commission has two investigators who examine complaints, and their findings are then forwarded to nine commissioners appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council. If the commissioners find a reasonable ground for discrimination and both parties fail to resolve the issue, the matter moves to a public hearing with a public hearing officer.

Although opponents are correct that fines can be imposed, a complaint must go through a public hearing before it can be assessed by the hearing officer, and this rarely happens.

Title 11 authorizes the city attorney to impose fines of up to $10,000 for a first offense; $25,000 for a second offense in five years and up to $50,000 for three offenses in seven years. These fines aren’t new, but recent revisions revamp the code so it’s clear that civil penalties apply to all three areas, not just housing, Rush Chipman said.

In the past five years, only two cases have gone to a public hearing and none of them have resulted in the imposition of fines, she said.

Over the past 11 years, the number of complaints filed with the commission has ranged from 99 in 2015 to 38 last year.

Of the 658 complaints filed since 2011, 44% allege discrimination in employment, 32% in housing and 4% in public accommodation.

Allegations of discrimination on the basis of disability are the most frequently reported in seven of the last ten years. Racial discrimination was most reported in one year and discrimination based on national origin was most reported in two of those years.

More often than not, investigators find that no discrimination has taken place, Rush Chipman said. Last year, “reasonable cause” was found in only three cases.

For there to be discrimination in public accommodation, for example, the discrimination must occur in a place that is open to the public, which is not exempt, and then there must be a denial of services, she said. .

Most often, both parties are able to resolve the complaint, even if there is a finding of discrimination. It’s not always intentional, Rush Chipman said, and the resolution could include training or education.

“Reaching this mutually beneficial agreement is the goal,” she said.

Contact the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist

Comments are closed.