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Nebraska bill to add LGBT workplace protections tabled for year
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Nebraska bill to add LGBT workplace protections tabled for year

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Lawmakers fighting to protect Nebraska's gay and transgender workers from discrimination failed to rouse the support of their uncommitted colleagues in the Legislature on Thursday.

With passage unlikely, Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld decided to table his bill (LB586) for the rest of the session, preserving it until next year.

"We are at a point where we need to go back to the drawing board a little bit," he said.

That followed more than three hours of impassioned debate on the measure, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's protected classes when it comes to workplace discrimination.

A similar bill fell to a filibuster last year, yet supporters had gained hope this go-around, thanks to backing from the business community, especially in the state's two largest cities.

But a mid-afternoon vote on a failed attempt to clarify the bill's exemption for religious institutions illustrated the challenge proponents face moving forward.

Just 20 senators supported the amendment, seen as a test vote for the overall bill, and 16 senators were present but didn't vote. Eight of those senators were freshmen.

Morfeld said the bill's supporters need more time to convince undecided senators that it is needed to keep hardworking lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Nebraskans from leaving the state.

"We're missing out on talent," he said Thursday. "They don't want to start a family here, because if they put a picture of their significant other on their desk, they could be fired in this state."

The Lincoln and Omaha chambers of commerce came out in favor of the measure in February, saying it would help boost the state's workforce.

But opponents called the legislation unnecessary.

"We're making a problem here," said Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft.

LGBT people reported higher incomes and savings, less debt and lower unemployment in a 2012 survey conducted by Prudential, which Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion cited during debate.

"Does it sound like we're describing somebody that needs a lot of help?" he said.

Other surveys have come to similar conclusions, but a Gallup poll cited by the same article Kintner referenced found LGBT people tend to have lower-than-average incomes and education.

Omaha has seen a handful of complaints since its LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance went into effect there in 2012.

Other states have seen far more.

Wisconsin, which became the first state to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 1982, has received 264 complaints since 2011, according to the state's Department of Workforce Development. 

Iowa civil rights investigators have taken on more than 678 cases alleging discrimination against LGBT people since the state added its own protections in 2007.

"All they want to do is have a chance to work, to earn an honest living like you are allowed to do," said Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers.

Nebraska's bill also faced staunch opposition from religious conservatives, who argued it wouldn't go far enough to protect religious freedoms.

Thursday's amendment offered by Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell was "completely inadequate," said Greg Schleppenbach, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference.

The group opposes discrimination, he said, but Morfeld's bill "essentially asks businesses and the church to affirm (the LGBT) lifestyle."

He said it's hard to imagine an amendment that could address those concerns.

Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks said the issue is personal.

"Which of you, on a bill which directly affects a child of yours, would not make it personal?" she said.

Her son Taylor was an honors student at Lincoln Southeast High School and a Fulbright scholar, and graduated with high distinction Saturday from the University of Nebraska College of Law.

"He currently holds the second-highest security clearance given to anyone in our nation," Pansing Brooks said. "I am very proud of this son of mine. He's gay; that has nothing to do with all this other information.

"But we are losing him to Washington, D.C. And we are losing other people, because he cannot stay here and work and be assured of equal protection in his ability to work."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com. On Twitter @zachamiLJS.

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