- Associated Press - Monday, April 7, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A bill that would bar Nebraska employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity stalled Monday in the Legislature.

Lawmakers fell seven votes short of the 33 they needed to overcome an eight-hour filibuster by a group of conservative lawmakers and bring the bill to a vote. Senators voted 26-22 to end debate on the legislation. With four days left the session, the bill has little chance of returning this year.

Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln said she introduced the bill to protect workers from being fired because of their sexual orientation or their preferred gender.

“Discrimination is real for this population,” she said. “It is pervasive. It crushes the hopes, it crushes the dreams, it crushes the productivity of some of our citizens who deserve nothing less than the equal treatment that we all enjoy under the law.”

Had the bill passed, Nebraska would have become the nation’s first solidly red state to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha introduced a similar measure in 2007, but it failed on a 24-15 vote.

Twenty other states and the District of Columbia already ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Included on the list are neighboring Iowa and Colorado. The other states are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington state and Wisconsin. Ten states and the District also prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.

Nebraska’s two largest cities have already approved similar measures, though the ordinance in Lincoln is in limbo. The Omaha City Council passed an anti-discrimination ordinance in 2012 with a 4-3 vote. The Lincoln City Council later voted 5-0 on an ordinance, but opponents gathered enough signatures to place the issue on the ballot. The council has not acted.

The state proposal advanced by the Judiciary Committee last month would apply to all public employees, government contractors, and private businesses with 15 or more workers. Religious organizations and colleges would be exempt.

Lawmakers began debating the bill on Thursday, before adjourning for the weekend.

Conservative lawmakers filibustered the bill through prolonged debate, arguing that it would hurt businesses owned by people who oppose gay relationships for religious reasons. Several pointed to the recent case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, which has been viewed as a legal test of whether owners can discriminate against gays, lesbians, bisexual and transsexual people.

Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion argued that the bill could saddle small businesses with tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills, even if lawsuits against them are later tossed out of court.

Other senators said the bill would intrude on the religious beliefs of business owners.

“Our state government should not be in charge of telling small business owners … to check their religious faith at the door when they leave for work in the morning,” said state Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha, a Republican candidate for governor.

Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, who is Catholic, said he was frustrated with arguments that invoked religious liberty as a reason for blocking the bill.

“This weighs heavily on me as a person, and it weighs heavily on me as a Catholic,” he said. “That’s not the faith that I have practiced, and it’s not the faith that I have tried to instill in my child, my family and my relatives.”

Chambers accused opponents of “cold, unmitigated hatred” against gay people.

“When these people can sit on this floor and say the cruel things that they say and then call themselves religious, it shows what a mockery they make of what it is they believe,” Chambers said.


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