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Gay rights issues back in the forefront in Nebraska state legislature

Gay rights issues back in the forefront in Nebraska state legislature

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska lawmakers plan to bring gay rights issues back into the forefront with three proposals seeking to extend rights to employees and families.

The issues up for discussion Thursday in the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee deal with discrimination against employees and extending rights for people seeking to adopt or provide foster care to a child.

Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad’s bill would ban businesses from discriminating against current or prospective employees based on their sexual orientation or marital status. The bill would not apply to religious groups.

“Employment decisions should not be based on classifications of who someone is or who somebody loves,” Conrad said. “It should be based on merit and how qualified someone is to do a job.”

Sen. Ernie Chambers introduced a similar bill in 2007, but it was killed by a 24-15 vote. Conrad said she thinks it’s a good time to revisit the issue since people are becoming more open to gay rights locally and nationally, especially since the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

The two other bills deal with foster care and adoption.

A bill by Omaha Sen. Sara Howard would allow any two unmarried adults, including gay couples, to adopt a child.

Another bill by Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist would allow unmarried heterosexual couples, same-sex couples, and transgender people to become foster parents.

Over the last year, gay rights have been a contentious issue in Omaha, Lincoln and Grand Island, where city councils have supported local bans on discrimination against gays and transgender people. Omaha and Grand Island approved discrimination bans.

Lincoln’s City Council also voted to expand employment protection against discrimination to gays, lesbians and transgender people last May, but opponents mounted a successful petition drive that requires the council to either let the ordinance die or su bmit it for voter approval. The public vote hasn’t been scheduled.

Last May, the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office issued a nonbinding opinion that local governments can’t adopt ordinances protecting people from discrimination based on sexuality because the state’s anti-discrimination laws don’t extend to sexual orientation.

Conrad said she agrees that the state should tackle the issue rather than leave the matter to cities.

Nebraska already bans employers from discriminating based on race, gender, disability, age, pregnancy and other factors. But, Nebraska and federal laws do not ban employers from discriminating against homosexual, bisexual or transgender people.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Ashford said he will support the gay rights bills after hearing testimony Thursday.

“I deplore discrimination in employment,” Ashford said. “There is no more fundamental freedom in America than the right and ability to work at a job and be free of discrimination.”

Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill, also on the committee, agreed and said she thinks the employment discrimination measure has a good chance of making it out of committee.

Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial, another Judiciary Committee member, said he will not support the discrimination bill and he suspects there will be a filibuster if the bill makes it to the floor.

“We have protections for things people can’t change like race,” he said. “Sexuality is a choice.”

Al Riskowski, executive director of the Nebraska Family Council, said his group will oppose Conrad’s bill and the others. He said sexual orientation should not be protected because it’s a lifestyle choice. He also said he does not think gay people are having trouble finding employment.

“This bill comes in direct conflict with freedom of speech and religious freedom,” he said.

He said his group has been targeted for opposing the Lincoln ordinance and Chamber’s legislation i n 2007.

“I firmly believe it is poor public policy, but it is hard to be heard from a policy prospective because the hearings get so socially charged,” he said. “It’s hard to make your case without people saying you’re hateful and bigoted.”

The bills are LB485, LB385 and LB380.

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