Legislature steps toward dealing with discrimination based on sexual orientation

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February 26, 2013 - 5:32pm

Nebraska law doesn’t bar employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation. But at the prodding of Senator Ernie Chambers, the Legislature may have taken a symbolic step in that direction Tuesday.

What started out as a discussion of letting McCook work camp inmates work for charitable, fraternal or nonprofit organizations turned into something else. Chambers has been filibustering the bill, claiming it would allow exploitation of inmates as free labor. Tuesday, he changed direction.

Chambers offered an amendment prohibiting the state from allowing any organization to use work camp inmates if those organizations discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Chambers asked Christensen if he would support such a move.

"If there’s an organization – charitable – and they discriminate, the organization discriminates – against people because of their sexual orientation, should that charitable organization be able to take advantage of this program that your bill is asking the Legislature to enact?" he asked.

"They’re following the law that we have here. So you’re trying to get me to commit to something that isn’t even the law in this state, senator," Christensen replied.

Nationwide, 21 states and the District of Columbia prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, while 29 states including Nebraska do not, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which favors such laws.

Christensen said part of his resistance to Chambers’ amendment reflected religious views. "If you believe in God, then the Bible’s clear if you have that relationship with Jesus Christ that you’re not a believer that homosexuality is proper," he said.

Chambers sought to turn the religious argument around on Christensen. "He can’t show me where Jesus said that anybody who’s homosexual is going to Hell. But he pointed out a whole lot of religious people who think they’re going to be someplace, and they’re going to wake up somewhere else, if all those things are true," Chambers said.

Senators then voted 29-5 in favor of Chambers amendment. They adjourned without taking a vote on advancing the now-changed work camp bill.

Christensen said later he didn’t know what he would do with his bill now. Chambers said adoption of his amendment might be the first step toward a more general ban on employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, contained in separate bill introduced in the Legislature this year.

Tuesday afternoon, the Agriculture Committee heard testimony on a bill involving climate change. Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm wants to expand the mission of an existing group, the Climate Assessment Response Committee. Currently, the group advises state government on how to respond to drought and other emergencies. Haar wants it to also take a more long-range view and report on the effects of climate change and possible responses.

Among those supporting the proposal was Clint Rowe, a professor in the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. Rowe said now is the time to act on climate change. "We can no longer afford to debate if human induced changes in the climate system are occurring. They are. We need to start considering how to adapt to the impacts of the changes that are occurring, and work diligently to ensure that we do not make the problems even worse," he said.

The only person to speak against the proposal was John Boellstorff, a retired geologist. "In my opinion, there is a huge gap in the whole climate change presentation, in that it is dominated by climatologists, meteorologists, sociologists and this type of thing. There is very little geological input," Boellstorff said. "When you start talking about climate change, you need to have some kind of geological input as far as how has climate changed in the past?"

Boellstorff said if it hadn’t been for global warming since the Ice age, farming would not be possible in Nebraska. The committee took no immediate action on the bill

Editor’s note: By way of full disclosure, John Boellstorff is related to Fred Knapp.

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