Legislature looking at civil rights protections

2012-12-10T19:00:00Z 2015-01-22T14:30:20Z Legislature looking at civil rights protectionsBy JoANNE YOUNG / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com
December 10, 2012 7:00 pm  • 

Lincoln nonprofit director Tami Lewis-Ahrendt and her spouse would like to be part of the solution for the many Nebraska children who need a loving family.

But as a lesbian couple, the two are banned in this state from both being foster parents and adopting a child.

On Monday, Lewis-Ahrendt told members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee at a hearing in Omaha that they are lucky to have two toddler boys. She is the biological mother, and the father is a part of the boys’ lives. But her wife, because their marriage is not recognized by the state, cannot legally adopt them.

They would love to share their daily lives, values, home and children with a few of the thousands of foster children who need placements each year, but the rules of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services don’t allow it.

“It breaks my heart to know there are kids sitting in emergency shelters and inappropriate placements and institutional environments because there aren’t enough families in the system,” Lewis-Ahrendt said. “It’s a shame to be counted out as a viable solution.”

The Judiciary Committee listened to three hours of testimony Monday in the Omaha City Council chambers on the need to strengthen civil rights protection for all Nebraskans, and the human and economic impact of not doing so. It also heard about the need for religious exemptions for any new law.

Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, who introduced the interim study resolution (LR478), said he will take the next week or two to determine how to move forward on the issues. He is hesitant to have people think the Legislature would act quickly on the employment discrimination issue, when in fact it could take at least three or four years.

Some type of legislation on allowing gay couples to become foster or adoptive parents would be more likely, he said. He first will communicate with HHS about whether it has any intention of changing its policy.

That policy came about in a 1995 memo from then-director of the Department of Social Services Mary Dean Harvey. She directed staff not to place state wards in the homes of people who identify themselves as homosexuals. Going forward, they also could not be licensed.

A couple of months later, Human Services Administrator Chris Hanus directed staff to not ask about individuals’ sexual orientation or marital status, other than questions that already were asked in the licensing application and home study -- a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

The adoption and foster care laws and policies create numerous problems for children and parents in this state, said Amy Miller, legal director of ACLU Nebraska.

According to the 2010 census, nearly 4,000 couples live in same-sex relationships in Nebraska. Nationwide, an estimated 4 million gay parents are raising 8 million to 10 million children.

Nebraska is one of the few states that ban gay or lesbian foster parents, she told the committee Monday. Recently, Arkansas and Missouri state courts struck down similar policies in their states.

The committee also heard from testifiers on issues of bullying in schools and employment discrimination.

Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray said banning discrimination is more a constitutional issue than a religious one. He took an oath to defend the Constitution and he has an obligation to uphold that, he said.

But frankly, he said, the state ought to be the leader on the issue.

Omaha and Lincoln passed ordinances banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. A petition called back Lincoln’s ordinance until people are allowed to vote on it.

Lincoln City Councilman Carl Eskridge, sponsor of the Lincoln fairness doctrine that would expand the city’s protection against discrimination to gay, lesbian and transgender people, said he had no particular date in mind to take the issue to a vote.

Gray said fairness doctrines also are an economic issue. If Nebraska doesn’t appear to be welcoming to all people, they will go elsewhere. And many have.

Churches and even members within the churches have disagreements on the issue, so the government must be the final arbiter, he said.

But Jim Cunningham with the Nebraska Catholic Conference said religious organizations should be exempted from any potential legislation. No one should be the subject of scorn or unjust discrimination, he said, but there is vagueness and uncertainty in some categories of discrimination laws, including gender identity.

Carol Clough, who identified herself as a conservative evangelical Christian, asked whether any legislation dealing with nondiscrimination in the workplace would infringe on her right to express her opinion as an individual.

Dave Gehrls, representing the Nebraska Heritage Coalition, said religious freedoms are given to individuals, not just organizations, and people should not have to leave their faith at the church doors.

Fundamental issues need to be discussed, he said, before legislating an end to discrimination against one group that could create discrimination against another group -- people of faith who want to live that faith in their businesses.

Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com -- You can follow JoAnne's tweets at twitter.com/ljslegislature.

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