LGBT antidiscrimination debate touches on religion, business; Whiteclay beer stores focus of hearing

Sen. Adam Morfeld speaks on LGBT anti-discrimination legislation (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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April 6, 2017 - 5:43pm

Arguments about religious freedom and the business climate dominated legislative debate over a proposal to outlaw job discrimination against LGBT people. And the Liquor Control Commission heard testimony about whether there is adequate law enforcement to continue beer sales in the troubled reservation border town of Whiteclay.


Sen. Adam Morfeld is the lead sponsor of LB173, a bill that would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment based on sexual preference or gender identity. Morfeld argued that it should be against the law to fire someone simply because they’re gay.

Sen. Suzanne Geist said she agreed no one should be discriminated against. But she opposed Morfeld’s bill on the basis of religious freedom. “Tolerance is a two-way street. I support only those laws that don’t pick and choose who gets freedom and who doesn’t. I believe that LB173 threatens the freedom of those who have -- and live by – their deeply held religious beliefs,” Geist said.

Sen. Sue Crawford supported the bill. She urged fellow senators to consider the example set by Jesus. “How did he treat tax collectors? How did he treat Samaritans? How did he treat women? (Despite) deeply held religious beliefs that said ‘We can’t mix with those people. We can’t hire them for our carpentry shop.’ Right? What did he model? Whatever you might believe, he modeled respect for the person, and  inclusiveness,” Crawford said.

Sen. John Lowe said he’s only interested in who can do the job. But he said the threat of lawsuits would have a chilling effect. “As a small businessman, I would have to think every day on what I say, how I act, and who I look at. We’re running small business out of Nebraska with laws like this,” Lowe said.

Supporters said groups including the Lincoln and Omaha Chambers of Commerce support the bill. And Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, who has a gay son, responded to Lowe’s comment. “It’s personal when you all stand up and say ‘It’s really going to be hard because we’re running businesses out of the state.’ We’re running people out of the state,” Pansing Brooks said.

After three hours of debate, lawmakers adjourned without reaching a first round vote on the bill. Speaker Jim Scheer said he would schedule it for further debate only if supporters show him they have enough votes to overcome a filibuster. Morfeld said would work on technical amendments to the bill and hoped that could secure enough votes to take the issue up again in a couple of weeks.

Also Thursday, the Liquor Control Commission heard testimony on whether it should renew the licenses of four beer stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska, bordering on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

The stores have been the center of controversy for decades. The commission is investigating whether there is sufficient law enforcement to counter problems brought on by alcohol sales. Millions of cans of beer are sold annually. Much of it is shuttled across the state line to the Oglala Sioux reservation where alcohol consumption is illegal. Public drunkenness and violence are not uncommon.

For a story on recent legislative action on Whiteclay, click here.

For a story on ideas for improving Whiteclay, click here.

For a story about a death allegedly linked to Whiteclay, click here.

For a story about the adequacy of law enforcement in Whiteclay, click here.

Taitwin Means, the tribe’s Attorney General, claimed the Sheridan County Sheriff’s office offers little assistance to tribal police in investigations or arrests. “It’s unfortunate because people are suffering for it. And our families are coming to us because they’re getting no resolution from Nebraska law enforcement. So they come to my office looking for some type of help for their victims – for these victims of sexual assault, physical assault, murders. It’s perplexing to me,” Means said.

Andy Snyder, the attorney for the White Clay stores, maintains there is nothing about the businesses themselves that should prevent them from continuing to be legally licensed. 

The hearing was continuing late Thursday afternoon. Whatever decision the commission reaches will almost certainly face a court challenge.

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