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Rally

State Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, who this year is sponsoring a measure to prevent workplace discrimination, speaks at a same-sex marriage rally in 2015 at the Capitol.

It was the third time Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld had introduced a bill that would protect employees who are gay or transgender from discrimination.

"This is not uncharted water, both within our legal system and in our largest city," Morfeld said. 

The bill (LB173) relates only to employment, he said, and would prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity by employers with 15 or more workers or with state contracts. It also covers employment agencies and labor organizations. 

Both the mayors and chambers of commerce of Lincoln and Omaha support the bill, Morfeld told the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.

If Nebraska is going to be competitive in the 21st century, "we need to act as though we are in the 21st century, and provide basic civil-rights protections for our employees," he said. 

The hearing on the bill ran for more than 2 1/2 hours, with passionate testimony on both sides.

Proponents talked about how Nebraskans, especially young professionals, have left the state because of policies that make LGBT residents feel unwelcome and unsafe.

Victoria Graeve-Cunningham, of the Greater Omaha Young Professionals Council and Omaha Chamber of Commerce, said talent is crucial to building the state's workforce. 

"However, we hear feedback constantly about those who are averse to relocating to Nebraska because the state does not offer this protection," she said. "We're in competition with Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin, which all have similar laws which provide this protection."

The LGBT population is 4.2 percent of the Nebraska workforce, more than 42,000 people, said Spencer Danner Jr.

"We need to keep hardworking lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Nebraskans from leaving this state. We are missing out on talent," he said.

A number of people who testified said they had lost jobs or promotions because of their sexual orientation, or had been asked by employees to hide their sexual orientation. They said they don't feel safe displaying photos of or talking about their spouses at work. 

The Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission last year transferred 18 complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission for investigation, said Stan Odenthal, executive director.

Many opponents of the bill objected for religious reasons. And they said the bill would be a first step from employment to offering other rights based on sexual identity and gender identification. 

Jim Jaksha, a licensed mental-health practitioner, said the language in the bill would give superior rights to LGBT residents. 

Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado, came to the hearing to talk about how he had been sued under his state law because he declined to design a cake celebrating a same-sex marriage. Because of that, he lost 40 percent of business and had to endure threatening and vile comments. 

"This law, in failing to safeguard everyone's constitutional freedoms, really stifles the diversity and tolerance that we've tried to protect and safeguard for so long in our society," said Kellie Fiedorek, a civil-rights lawyer.

Jonathan Alexandre, of Washington, D.C.-based Liberty Counsel, objected to advocates of the bill using language of the civil-rights movement to convince the committee to support the measure.

"As a person of color, I strenuously object to equating sexual orientation and gender identity to race," he said.

"Saying that those that suffer from gender dysphoria have suffered the same plight as black Americans, from slavery through the Jim Crow era, that's not only an offensive comparison but it is intellectually dishonest."

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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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