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LGBTQ workplace discrimination bill fails again, but not without passionate debate

March 6, 2019

It wasn’t exactly a vote on the bill that would give protections to LGBTQ workers, but it was a vote that ended debate and the bill’s chances of passing this session.

The bill (LB627) that would ensure workers couldn’t be fired or discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity will be put aside for the rest of the session, unless its sponsor, Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, can find enough votes — 33 — to break a filibuster.

She’d have to find at least eight or nine more senators to support the bill that would make LGBTQ discrimination unlawful for an employer with 15 or more employees, employers with state contracts regardless of the number of employees, the State of Nebraska, government agencies and political subdivisions.

And Pansing Brooks said she doesn’t have those votes.

“But weren’t there great voices out there speaking, so much stronger than even the previous times we’ve heard it?” she said of the debate. “I hope that people feel strengthened and hopeful about the change that has occurred on this floor.

“It gives me such courage. And people like me will get older and shuffle off, and the strong, loving, kind, compassionate voices will end up ruling the day.”

Those voices she referred to included Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, who started off quietly praising members of her staff that represent the LGBTQ community. She then went on to talk about being a passionate Catholic who has spent time looking at the issue from a religious perspective.

“And it is with great disappointment that I hear people using my religion as a means for hate,” she said.

The Catholic catechism says members of the LGBT community must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity, and every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided, Cavanaugh said.

“This bill is to work against unjust discrimination. And every single person that stands up here and says that this bill isn’t needed ... your white-male privilege is showing. And I am angry. And I am sick of it,” she said.

That’s when the emotion in Cavanaugh’s voice spilled over.

“This is atrocious. This is disgusting. There is no reason in the world that we shouldn’t pass this wholeheartedly. One hundred percent. History will not look kindly upon you, gentlemen,” she said.

Those who spoke against the bill, including Sen. Julie Slama of Peru and Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist, questioned whether such a law would bring frivolous lawsuits, fail to protect religious beliefs of employers and whether it was even warranted.

Sen. Robert Clements of Elmwood said to be in a protected class a person had to be denied access to education, economic opportunity, voting rights and to have obvious identifiable characteristics.

“I think if there was science that said that you were born at birth that way, that we would be hearing about that. I haven’t heard that,” he said.

Tolerance and beliefs should go both ways, he said.

“To affirm what the Bible teaches, and Christians and Jews have affirmed for 2,000 years, is being called hateful. That seems to me to be reverse discrimination,” Clements said.

Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil read an email from a constituent, which he said he agreed with. It said the bill would undermine constitutional freedoms; target small businesses; threaten women, equality and privacy; and empower the government to punish people of faith for their religious beliefs on marriage and sexuality.

Laws like LB627 are used as a sword against people with traditional understandings of marriage and sexuality, rather than a shield against actual discrimination, the writer of the email said.

People, Murman said, are moving back to Nebraska because of its conservative values.

The vote the Legislature took Tuesday morning was actually one to overrule Speaker Jim Scheer’s decision to not allow Lincoln Sen. Matt Hansen to call the question as senators got close to three hours of debate.

Hansen said it was a test of the bill’s support and of the speaker’s practice to end debate after three hours in a filibuster if a bill’s sponsor can’t find the support to force a vote. If Scheer had ended debate at three hours, no vote would have been taken, and the bill would have been shelved this session unless Pansing Brooks could show she had 33 votes.

“How close to the end of the three hours do we have to be before we can’t call the question any more?” Pansing Brooks said. “That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Hansen’s motion to overrule the speaker’s decision failed on a 26-16 vote.