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Legislative committee hears bills to ban LGBT discrimination in Nebraska

Legislative committee hears bills to ban LGBT discrimination in Nebraska
LINCOLN, Neb. — A Nebraska legislative committee heard more than four hours of often-emotional testimony Wednesday about bills that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in hiring, adoptions and foster parent selection.

Nebraska state capitol in Lincoln.
Nebraska state capitol in Lincoln.

Each of the three bills has been introduced in past years, but this year’s Judiciary Committee is made up of mostly new members, including vocal LGBT advocates Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln and Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln.

Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln said he’s not sure how the new votes will fall. But if the bills do advance, the battle against the Legislature’s overwhelming conservative majority will be difficult, he said.

“I can tell you that any of these will need 33 votes to break a filibuster, because (a filibuster) will happen,” Coash said.

One measure by Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, would bar discrimination against potential foster parents based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or other factors.

Only Nebraska and Utah prohibit gay foster parents. Nebraska’s policy is based on a 1995 staff memo from the director the Department of Health and Human Services at the time. Advocates said Nebraska already lacks safe homes for 3,000 wards of the state, 33 percent of which have been placed in four or more homes.

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Todd Vesley and Joel Busch told the committee Wednesday that in 2007, after they passed the training, tests and home inspection required for foster care, the department told them they would not be given a license because they were gay. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Vesley, Busch and two other Nebraska couples.

“We have the hearts to give these children a better life, a loving a safe home,” Busch said. “That what it’s about.”

But representatives for the Nebraska Catholic Conference and Thomas More Society said the measure prioritizes the wants of adults over the needs of children. Karen Bowling of the Nebraska Family Alliance said being a foster parent is not a right and that DHHS should be allowed to be discriminatory in choosing the right home.

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A second bill by Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha would allow for joint adoption by two individual regardless of marital status. If a same-sex couple adopts a child, current law mandates that child would only have legal connections to one parent.

Lin Quenzer of Lincoln described the challenges of raising a 15-year-old without such a law. Quenzer’s partner of 26 years is the legal parent of her son. She calls herself a “legal stranger” who can’t sign papers at his school or take him to the dentist. Under current laws, if her partner died, Quenzer would not be guaranteed custody of the child they raised.

But opponents, many of whom testified against the previous bill, reiterated beliefs that a commitment between a husband and a wife is the most stable environment to raise a child. Joe Neuhaus of the Nebraska Family Alliance said he worried the bill’s language leaves room for innumerable combinations of individuals to become parents.

A third measure by Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln would ban employment discrimination against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Morfeld told the committee it’s about maintaining Nebraska’s competitive job market as much as equality.

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Clark Lauritzen of the Omaha Chamber of Commerce said the measure would keep talent in the state.

“The longer we wait, … the more good talent and jobs we will lose to other states,” Lauritzen said.

Greg Schleppenbach of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, who testified on all three bills, said the church strongly opposes unjust discrimination but does not believe employers should be forced to affirm employees’ choices.

The committee will not vote on advancing the bills until next week at the earliest, according to chairman Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings.

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