Nebraskans could not be compelled to violate their religious beliefs unless essential to further a compelling state interest under a bill considered Jan. 19 by the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.
LB774, introduced by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, would prevent state and local political subdivisions from placing a “substantial burden” on individuals, associations, partnerships, corporations, churches, religious institutions, estates, trusts, foundations and other legal entities’ right to practice sincerely held religious beliefs.
Such burdens would include withholding benefits, imposing criminal, civil or administrative penalties or damages, exclusion from government programs or access to government facilities.
The bill also would prohibit the state from restricting religious organizations’ activities during a state of emergency to a greater extent than it restricts non-religious organizations and would allow an individual who believes that their religious practice has been burdened or restricted to file a civil lawsuit.
Brewer said he introduced the bill after learning of incidents of Native Americans having their religious rights infringed upon.
“This bill is trying to give people of all faiths a seat at the table,” Brewer said. “Nebraskans of all faiths and backgrounds can live their lives and practice their religion. They can do that knowing that the state will not interfere with their precious, righteous rights unless it is for a very good reason.”
John Horsechief testified in support of the bill. He said he works for a faith-based rescue mission similar to one that helped him recover from homelessness earlier in his life. Such organizations, Horsechief said, have been denied funding from certain sources because of their religious affiliation.
“LB774 would continue to ensure that faith-based rescue missions are allowed to render these services on their own terms,” he said.
Tom Venzor, director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, also supported the bill. He said LB774 would provide balance between religious liberty and public health.
“LB774 ensures that the government’s actions are checked and balanced when they have a potential for substantially burdening religion,” Venzor said.
Brett Parker of American Atheists testified against the bill. He said LB774 is unnecessary because freedom of religion already is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“Those protections are doing an amazing job of protecting everyone,” Parker said. “It’s not about balancing, it’s about elevating.”
Speaking on behalf of the ACLU of Nebraska, Spike Eickholt opposed the bill, saying it could tie the hands of public health officials. For example, a government entity that issues a stay-at-home order during a public health emergency but allows grocery stores to remain open would be in violation of LB774’s provisions, he said.
The committee declined to advance the bill to general file on a 4-2 vote. Five votes were needed.