Workplace protections proposed for sexual orientation

Employees would be protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity under a bill heard by the Judiciary Committee Feb. 22.

<a href='http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist46' target='_blank' title='Link to the website of Sen. Adam Morfeld'>Sen. Adam Morfeld</a>
Sen. Adam Morfeld

Introduced by Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld, LB173 would prohibit employers, employment agencies and labor unions from discriminating against individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill would apply to employers with 15 or more employees, employers with state contracts, the state of Nebraska, governmental agencies and political subdivisions.

Discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, marital status and national origin currently is prohibited.

Morfeld said Omaha adopted a 2012 ordinance protecting employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The city has faced no litigation under the ordinance and local businesses have seen no negative impacts, he said.

“No one should be fired for who they are or who they love, but judged based on the quality of their work,” he said. “As a young Nebraskan, the time for this common sense protection has not only come, but has passed. Equality under the law and justice demands it.”

Representing the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, Victoria Graeve-Cunningham supported the bill, saying the proposed protections would have a tremendous positive economic impact on the state and local communities.

“We hear feedback constantly from those who are averse to moving to Nebraska because the state does not offer these protections,” she said. “People are our greatest asset and we need to demonstrate that we mean that.”

Mary Boschult, representing the League of Women Voters of Lincoln–Lancaster County, also testified in support of the bill.

“There should be equality of opportunity for education, employment and housing regardless of their race, religion, marital status, sexual orientation or gender identity,” Boschult said.

Additionally, several members of the LGBT community testified in support of LB173, including Reuben Erickson, a high school student from Lincoln. He said the bill would represent a giant leap forward for all Nebraskans’ civic rights and bolster individual political freedoms without instituting overly burdensome government oversight.

“We have a chance to not only advance civil rights, but to take a step forward in pushing Nebraska beyond the curve we’ve fallen behind,” he said. “We have a chance to strengthen our economy, ensure political freedom and make a real difference in how Nebraska is perceived throughout the country.

Opposing the measure was Jack Phillips, a Colorado cake shop owner. Phillips was sued for refusing to produce a cake for a same sex wedding because it conflicted with his religious beliefs. The Colorado law under which he was sued, he said, is similar to LB173.

“The government’s actions have forced me to lose 40 percent of my business,” Phillips said. “Regardless of your viewpoint on marriage, shouldn’t we all agree that the government shouldn’t force us to speak or act in a way that violates our religious convictions?”

Karen Bowling, executive director of the Nebraska Family Alliance, also opposed the bill. She said that while Christian beliefs are not shared by all Nebraskans, they should be respected by all.

“Religious institutions, family businesses and private individuals should not be compelled to condone activities that violate their sincerely held beliefs,” Bowling said. “[LB173] has the potential to compromise Nebraskans’ rights to religious liberty.”

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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