State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha introduces a proposal to add sexual orientation and gender identity to employment nondiscrimination laws on Wednesday, March 1, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. Similar legislation has been brought before the Legislature for nearly three decades. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Jayden Speed, an 18-year-old high school student, said he is counting down the days to graduation while calculating whether Nebraska is the state to stay in.
As a queer young person, Speed said, he loves Nebraska, its communities and the Legislature, and Wesleyan University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Creighton University have offered “substantial financial packages.”
“But no amount of money makes up for the bigotry that currently exists in the state,” Speed said, adding he and others feel “under attack” with some proposed legislation this year.
Legislative Bill 169, proposed by State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, would add protections for Speed and other LGBTQ Nebraskans, enshrining sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes for employers of more than 15 employees.
Hunt has offered an amendment that would extend the proposal to employers of any size.
Employment discrimination of this nature is already prohibited nationwide as a result of a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision. In that case, justices said employers cannot fire an individual who is gay or transgender just because of their identity under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Hunt told the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that various iterations of her proposal have been introduced since at least 1994 and that state-specific language could provide clarity and decrease litigation costs.
“As it stands today, we have a patchwork of federal, state and local laws that have different employment thresholds, which create uncertainty for employees and employers,” Hunt said.
Under LB 169, there would be exemptions for religious organizations.
Scott Moore, chief administrative officer for Union Pacific Railroad, testified in support for Union Pacific, the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and the Nebraska Economic Developers Association, arguing that the time has come for such legislation.
“When you get a diverse group of people with diverse thought, you stretch your thinking, you stretch your ideas, and you have better ideas,” said Moore, a former state senator.
Moore said he previously offered a promotion to a Union Pacific employee, which entailed a move to Omaha, but the employee turned it down because of Nebraska’s laws.
“Nebraska simply has to make a statement like this that we’re welcoming,” Moore said.
Cindy Maxwell-Ostdiek of Omaha, whose background is in human resources and recruiting, added that she has also seen prospective employees decline jobs citing Nebraska policies that are “not welcoming.”
Nate Dodge spoke in favor of LB 169 for the Omaha and Lincoln Chambers of Commerce with a simple message: It’s good for businesses.
With low unemployment, Dodge said, recruiting talent becomes essential.
“And it makes no sense to take the risk that anyone in Nebraska might discriminate against any potential employee simply because of something that has nothing to do with their talents, their work ethic or their specific skill set,” Dodge said.
Allen Fredrickson, the founder of Signature Performance, a health care company based in Omaha, said LB 169 would be the ethical and moral thing to do.
“It’s consistent with the Nebraska way that I’m familiar with, and that is the good life for everyone,” said Fredrickson, who is the father of State Sen. John Fredrickson.
‘Corrective government coercion’
Opponents said, however, that Hunt’s proposal could punish individuals based on their “sincerely held beliefs,” including on marriage, sexuality or gender identity.
Marion Miner, associate director of pro-life and family policy for the Nebraska Catholic Conference, said the Supreme Court has recognized that those who hold “traditional views” on marriage are “reasonable” and “sincere.”
“LB 169 does not treat those with such views on marriage and sexuality as reasonable and sincere people but instead as bad actors in need of corrective government coercion and punishment,” Miner said.
Miner and Greg Baylor with the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom said Nebraska’s religious exemptions are “too narrow” as the bill is currently written.
They and other opponents added that LB 169 could infringe on people’s freedom of speech.
Creed as protection
Marilyn Asher of Omaha, who challenged Hunt for her legislative seat in 2022, said her main concern with LB 169 is that sexual orientation and gender identity are already protected.
This is because Nebraska prohibits discrimination on the basis of “creed,” a set of beliefs, she said.
“The practice of elevating two particular creeds could become the gateway for more extraneous creeds to be added to the law,” Asher said.
State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, a member of the Judiciary Committee, disagreed with Asher and said creed is not the same thing as identity.
Omaha already has a nondiscrimination policy in place for gender identity and sexual orientation, and the Lincoln City Council attempted to add protections in 2022.
State Sen. Wendy DeBoer, vice chair of the Judiciary Committee, said the “sky hasn’t fallen” in Omaha, while Miner said it has elsewhere.
Fighting brain drain
Abby Burke said her daughter attends UNL and would likely leave the state without additional protections.
Burke said her daughter, an ally for LGBTQ people, is studying to be a teacher. She said if the Legislature doesn’t pass LB 169, it could exacerbate teacher shortages and brain drain.
And if her daughter moves away, Burke said, she and her husband would likely follow.
Jacob Carmichael of Bennington said conservative senators and Gov. Jim Pillen are right to fight the brain drain.
But the answer isn’t lowering taxes, Carmichael said, it’s a “common sense” bill like LB 169.
“Protecting those rights and protecting discrimination based on gender identity is setting Nebraska toward a mostly national standard as well as making it a safer place for someone like me,” Carmichael said.
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