Proposals on religious freedom/same-sex adoption, school property taxes advancing in Legislature

Nebraska Legislature Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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March 18, 2016 - 4:55pm

A bill supporters say protects religious freedom, but opponents say discriminates against same-sex foster and adoptive parents, advanced from a deeply divided Judiciary Committee, while a proposal aimed at holding down school property taxes is also moving ahead in the Nebraska Legislature.

The Judiciary Committee voted 5-3 Friday to advance what sponsoring Sen. Mark Kolterman is calling the "Child Placement Services Preservation Act." It says the state should not act against religiously-based agencies it contracts with to recruit foster and adoptive parents, if those agencies are following sincerely held religious beliefs – for example, by declining to recruit same-sex couples as adoptive parents.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, one of whose children is gay, says supporters of the bill are engaging in discrimination. "They do not care whether or not I get to be a grandmother, and whether or not I get to enjoy the fulfilment of the life cycle with my son’s children," she said.

Sen. Bob Krist, who supports Kolterman’s bill, says Pansing Brooks is missing the point. "That’s not what I’m saying at all. It’s as if one of us thought that the only person that had any gay relatives was her," Krist said. "I’m not begrudging any person from adopting a child as long as they can provide that child with a proper home and upbringing."

Krist said the point of the legislation is that "religious-based organizations that are in the placement business do not want to violate their own morals or codes or religious based convictions in order to comply with placing children."

Pansing Brooks said that’s fine, but not at public expense. "They are welcome to practice their faith. I am happy to have them practice their faith, and have businesses that allow them to practice their faith. But they should not be receiving state dollars," she said.

Opponents of the bill say enacting it would put the state at risk of losing millions of dollars it gets every year from the federal government. Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson disagrees. And Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Les Seiler says that’s good enough for the committee to advance the bill. "We asked for an attorney general’s opinion, got it, and he …basically says there’s no liability," Seiler said, adding "with that, we moved forward.

Pansing Brooks disagrees with that opinion, and with the message she says the legislation sends about the state. "This kind of policy continues to encourage bright, fabulous people to just move away from Nebraska," she declared.

Krist says the legislation merely protects a system of both religiously-based and secular agencies that he says works well. "I know of several situations where one of those agencies said ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you,’ but picked up the phone and called the agency that could. So I think there’s a great relationship between those agencies right now that will not be encumbered by the fact that we potentially will have this discussion on the (legislative) floor.

The key word there is "potentially." Only 15 business days remain in this year’s legislative session, and Speaker Galen Hadley says it remains to be seen whether there’ll be enough time to debate Kolterman’s bill this year.

Meanwhile, the Education Committee has advanced a proposal dealing with school property taxes. One part tightens limits on how much school districts can spend for bond issues on things like environmental hazards or accessibility improvements. Another part eliminates a penalty schools pay if their property tax levy drops below about 95 cents per $100 of assessed value – that’s the equivalent of $950 of property taxes a year, on a $100,000 house.

Committee Chair Sen. Kate Sullivan says that penalty gives some districts an incentive to levy more property taxes than they might otherwise need. "If a district no longer has that expectation that ‘we have to stay at 95 cents to capture that state aid, then they may very well drop their levy," Sullivan said.

The Nebraska Department of Education says 32 of the state’s 245 school districts have levies within a penny of 95 cents. (For a list of those districts, click here).





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