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For 90 minutes on Thursday afternoon, the Legislature's Judiciary Committee heard people testify — most for three minutes each — on their support for passing a law that would prohibit discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

They were people from the LGBTQ community of Nebraska, their parents and siblings and friends.

Opponents to the issued were at the podium for a combined 35 minutes. They mostly talked about religious freedoms, business freedoms and the right of women to not have to share safe or private spaces, such as bathrooms, with members of the opposite sex.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, who herself has a son who is gay, introduced the bill (LB627) that would make it unlawful for an employer, employment agency or a labor organization to discriminate against a person on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

It would apply to employers having 15 or more workers and those with contracts, regardless of the number of employees, with the state of Nebraska, governmental agencies and political subdivisions.

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

"The bill protects Nebraskans against being fired simply for who they are and whom they love," Pansing Brooks said. "How twisted and cruel to think we can judge love. Yet this is still happening in Nebraska today." 

This is a sampling of people who testified in support of the bill: 

Eli Rigatuso, a transgender man who came out in May 2015 and said that two years later he was being discriminated against at work and harassed by co-workers. 

"I suffered a lot in that short period of time. It weighed a lot on my mental health. I considered leaving Nebraska a number of times," he said. "It's because of these types of bills coming forward that I stayed, because it gives me hope.

"How I wish to be treated is to be seen, valued and affirmed as a citizen of Nebraska, as a human being, as a life." 

Erin Porterfield, executive director of Heartland Workplace Solutions in Omaha, said Nebraska doesn't have the number of people needed to fill current and projected work openings. 

"In this low-unemployment environment, we need to retain this local talent and attract talent from outside states," she said. 

States with nondiscrimination laws show improvement in economic growth, she said. Nebraska's lack of such a law works against companies looking for talent. 

"Young talent and people, in general, are interested in personal freedoms, not limitations," she said. "People who are LGBTQ want to work where they can bring their whole self, and decisions and the environment that we are creating right now will set that course for our welcoming of future talent."

Kayla Meyer of Lincoln Young Professionals, a group of more than 1,700 young business leaders, said the bill would create a more inclusive and diverse workforce.

"Fairness and equal treatment are fundamental values of our state, are essential for a welcoming economy and perhaps most importantly they are the basis of our anti-discrimination law," she said. 

Danielle Conrad, executive director ACLU of Nebraska: "Let me just start by saying this to all of my LGBTQ neighbors in Nebraska: We see you. We love you. We hear you. And we will never stop fighting until equality means equality for everyone, until freedom means freedom for everyone." 

Nine people testified as opponents. They included: 

Matt Sharp with Alliance Defending Freedom, said laws like LB627 are not fair to everyone, impacting people of faith, women, girls and kids in the foster system. They force people who willingly serve everyone to promote messages and celebrate events that conflict with their beliefs. 

He gave the example of the baker in Colorado, Jack Phillips, who faced a lawsuit because he denied a gay couple a wedding cake for religious reasons. The Supreme Court partially upheld his denial, but now he faces another lawsuit for bias. 

Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, said everyone should be treated with respect and dignity, but the bill goes beyond protecting against unjust discrimination. It uses government coercion and punishment to force individuals and employers to promote conduct and messages that conflict with sincerely held moral and religious beliefs on marriage and human sexuality.  

John Dockery of Omaha, a retired small business owner, said sexual orientation and gender identity is a movement and a belief, and should not be considered as a protected class.

"We already have creed in our list of classes, to protect our beliefs from discrimination," he said. "Adding sexuality orientation and gender identity as an individual class prioritizes it over others' beliefs." 

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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