Nondiscrimination policy debate begins

Debate began April 3 on a bill that would extend Nebraska’s workplace nondiscrimination laws to include gay and transgender employees.

LB485, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad, would prohibit employers, employment agencies and labor organizations from discriminating against an individual on the basis of sexual orientation. The bill would apply to employers having 15 or more employees, employers with state contracts, the state of Nebraska, governmental agencies and political subdivisions.

Current law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, marital status or national origin.

A pending Judiciary Committee amendment would add and define the terms “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” to the proposed bill. Gender identity would be defined as the actual or perceived appearance, expression, identity or behavior of an individual, whether or not that appearance, expression, identity or behavior is different from the individual’s assigned sex at birth. Sexual orientation would be defined as actual or perceived homosexuality, heterosexuality or bisexuality.

The amendment also would broaden the religious exemptions in the bill to include religious organizations such as schools, colleges, universities or other educational institutions.

Conrad said she brought the bill to give lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens (LGBT) equal rights in the workplace. No one in Nebraska should be fired for who they are or who they love, she said.

“They [LGBT citizens] deserve the same rights we all presently enjoy in the workplace,” Conrad said. “This legislation is not about special rights for anyone; it is about equal rights for everyone.”

Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford spoke in support of the bill and pending committee amendment, calling it a necessary step towards fighting intolerance and discrimination.

“This state is a great state, but we’ve got to show it,” Ashford said. “We must vote for this bill and we must continue on the road … towards a place where intolerance is wiped off the face of the Earth—at least in Nebraska.”

Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy spoke in opposition to the bill, saying it is a threat to the religious freedom of small business owners in Nebraska.

“LB485 demands Nebraskans choose between two really, really difficult poison pills,” he said. “Comply and desert your faith—or resist and lose your job or small business.”

Papillion Sen. Jim Smith also opposed the bill, saying that employment-related lawsuits pose significant risks to small businesses. Statistics show, he said, that defense costs for employment-based claims average $100,000 per case.

“I believe this bill is one additional burden to our employers and job creators in our state, particularly to small businesses,” Smith said.

Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist disagreed, saying the bill would benefit Nebraska’s economy because people look for communities that are diverse, inclusive and welcoming. Workplace discrimination causes new graduates to leave the state, he said.

“If we don’t remove barriers like this, we are going to struggle to keep a young, vibrant, educated, professional workforce to fill those jobs,” Nordquist said.

The Legislature adjourned for the week before taking action on the 24 pending amendments.

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